It's Carl Jung vs. Sigmund Freud in A Dangerous Method, the talky new drama of ideas from director David Cronenberg. But despite what you see on the poster and in the preview trailers, the dueling doctors are not involved in a love triangle over a woman. Yes, there is a woman at the center of the story, the historically significant figure, Sabine Spielrein; an early patient of Jung's, she was later psychoanalyzed by Freud, and eventually went on to become a doctor in her own right, and colleague to both men. Many things come between the two pioneers of modern psychiatry in the course of the film, but sexual rivalry over Sabine is not one of them.
The film opens in 1904, when a howling, twitchy, teenage Sabine (played with often overwrought intensity by Keira Knightley), is brought to a clinic in Switzerland to be treated by the youthful Dr. Jung (Michael Fassbender). Instead of resorting to the draconian methods to which the mentally ill are usually subjected, Jung employs a radical idea of Freud's called the "talking cure," or "psych-analysis," to get to the root of Sabine' disorder. (And what an earful he gets when she blurts out fairly soon that her abusive father's beatings "excited" her.)
Flushed with success as Sabine rallies to the point of embarking on her own medical studies, Jung journeys to Vienna to meet his idol, Freud (a marvelously wry Viggo Mortensen), who anoints the younger man as his "heir" in the field. They enjoy a mentor-protégé relationship for awhile; it's fun to watch the two men studiously interpreting (or misinterpreting) each other’s dreams. But ultimately, they split over the direction of psychoanalysis; the fastidious Jung objects to Freud reducing every disorder to a sexual cause, while Freud scorns the "superstition" of Jung's interests in telepathy and theology.
In the film story, however, it's Jung who seems to get caught up in the hothouse atmosphere dominated by discussions of sex and repression, death and libido. Although relations with his wife are shown to be "ambivalent" (she's the one with the money to support their growing family, and provide creature comforts, however), Jung's decision to take the eager Sabine as his mistress seems more like a case of going with the flow, rather than an act of desperate passion. (While Sabine's need to be spanked—vigorously and often—to get in the mood seems to bear out Freud's theory.) It's also a little creepy that these sequences seem to validate the 19th Century notion that a "hysterical" woman was best cured in bed.
In fact, one gets the feeling this uptight Jung would never have gotten himself into anything as messy as this affair if not for the non-stop egging-on of another historical figure, part-time madman, frequent patient and fellow psychoanalyst Otto Gross. The scene-stealing Vincent Cassel is terrific in his brief scenes as bad-boy libertine and agent provocateur, Gross, who counsels Jung to "never repress anything," and to grasp any experience life has to offer, which seems a more likely explanation for the dalliance with Sabine than any actual pleasure this mercurial, guilt-stricken Jung ever gets out of it.
Another subtext that gradually gains importance is racial: Freud and his Viennese colleagues are Jews, while Jung is "Aryan." Part of Sabine's fascination for Jung, we're told, is her Jewishness, that she represents to him a kind of forbidden exotica. Of course, their temporarily cooled affair heats up again after Sabine writes a dissertation proposing a theory in direct opposition to one of Freud's.
Interpersonal relationships have never been Cronenberg's strong suit, and what's missing here is an emotional center to sustain viewers through all the theoretical debates (and perfunctory sex). That Christopher Hampton's screenplay is adapted from his own stage play, "The Talking Cure," as well as from John Kerr’s non-fiction book, "A Most Dangerous Method" also contributes to the screen story feeling both rushed and fragmented. A lot of interesting ideas are ping-ponged around in the course of the story, but the film never quite finds its focus.
A DANGEROUS METHOD
★★1/2 (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, and Viggo Mortensen.
Written by Christopher Hampton. Directed by David Cronenberg.
A Sony Classics release. Rated R. 99 minutes.
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