David Cronenberg lays everything on the table and gives it a smack in A Dangerous Method, his 2011 exploration of the psychology of Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, Sabina Spielrein, and even Otto Gross. This is sexual drama of the clinical variety, which means it shares some terrain with Dead Ringers and Crash.
A Dangerous Method is based the 2002 play The Talking Cure by Christopher Hampton, which was based on the 1993 book A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud and Sabina Spielrein by John Kerr. The screenplay by Hampton is a study in the relationships between and behind analytical psychology and psychoanalysis.
Keira Knightley is Spielrein, a woman suffering from hysteria. She is sent to the University of Zurich’s psychiatric hospital, where Swiss doctor Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) uses her as a guinea pig for his new ideas. He interprets her dreams and discovers that humiliation plays a role in her condition.
Jung, enamoured with Spielrein’s intelligence, has her assist with experiments. Soon, something else develops between the two. Jung begins corresponding with Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and a friendship materializes that is tested over the years.
A Dangerous Method reconnoitres the web of relationships at the root of what is largely known as modern psychoanalysis, the method of thinking about the self that has absorbed everything from daytime talk shows to how people think about leadership. One’s mental fitness now has a familiar method of account, complete with complexes and disorders and norms.
The conflicting but complementary ideas of Freud and Jung form much of the basis for this psychoanalysis, but Cronenberg’s exploration has more to do with how the theoretical creeps into the interpersonal. The linchpin is not Freud, Jung or even Spielrein. Instead, it is Gross (Vincent Cassel).
It is Gross who prods Jung toward a somewhat anarchic vision of depth psychology. It is Gross who rejects Freud’s necessary suppression. It is Gross who equates the doctor’s job with the accessing of certain freedom. But it is also Gross, through his easy influence on Fassbender’s Jung, who unconsciously leads the way to the liberation of Spielrein’s mind.
Cronenberg parses the relationships of A Dangerous Method with a lot of discussion. The imagery is not heavy and Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography is typical of a period piece. The costume design is also characteristic of the period and Howard Shore’s score starts and stops through various operatic idioms.
As with most Cronenberg films, repression and self-delusion are themes. In this instance, the thematic material is less a matter of connotation and more a matter of academics. Mortensen’s Freud tangles with Fassbender’s Jung in a series of personal and lettered discussions about all things scientific. Everything is laid bare with the clinical cool of an examination.
Moments of actual passion are sparse, as when Spielrein’s manic episodes take flight and she mines the depth of her hysteria. It’s interesting to note Cronenberg’s insistence that something fruitful emerges from her entanglement with Freud and Jung, something more beneficial than the clever squabbling of her colleagues.
A Dangerous Method is a little blatant and the plain exposition seems a little dry, especially when it comes at the expense of relational depth. And unfortunately, elements of Jung’s mysticism are only mentioned in passing despite the disruptive ramifications they have on his relationship with Freud.
Still, it’s hard to argue with Cronenberg’s quantifiable approach given the subject matter. Knightley’s risky but accurate portrayal highlights the fringes, while Fassbender’s Jung offers an access point adrift in possibility. And there is an erotic susceptibility that somehow illuminates and exposes those things still considered most intimate of all.