Review: A Dangerous Method

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I don’t know if I’ve had a more confounding cinema experience this year than I did watching A Dangerous Method, David Cronenberg’s film about Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, and the woman who came between them. I’ll bet that psychologists everywhere will flock to it, arguing about it like ballet dancers did about Black Swan last year, but for those of who can barely keep straight the differences between id, ego, and superego, this film is about as interesting as a graduate seminar, even if it does not one but two scenes of a topless Keira Knightley getting spanked.

The script, written by Christopher Hampton and based on his play The Talking Cure, focuses on the true story of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), a Swiss acolyte of Freud’s, treating a Russian girl (Knightley), who has hysterical fits. What’s interesting about this early sequence is how well she is treated–this is no Snake Pit. Jung uses Freud’s new-fangled psychoanalysis, talking out what makes her go into seizure-like fits, and traces it back to her relationship with her father, who beat her, but also made her excited.

Eventually Jung meets Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and the two form a collegial relationship, despite Freud considering Jung a bit of a kook with references to mysticism and shamanism. This sort of comes out of nowhere in the script, as except for one scene in which Jung proclaims he anticipated the sound of a heater crackling, we don’t get a sense of him as anything but a straight-laced gentleman. That is, until he succumbs to Knightley’s charms and indulges her fantasies of being beaten.

But this makes the film kinkier than it sounds. At several points I wondered if this was a movie at all–instead it just seems like random scenes cut together without any regard for pacing or story. Cronenberg indulges in some transitions I find to be violations of unwritten rules–he has two characters talking in a scene, then cuts to the same two characters, discussing something else, in a different place, without us having any sense of how much time has passed, or the resolution of the previous scene. There’s also a lot of talk about Freud’s fixation on sex, with a few droll lines by Jung about how everything with Freud comes back to sex (I was reminded of the line in the TV show M*A*S*H, when Dr. Sidney Freeman says, “Sex is why we eat, sex is why we go to the bathroom, sex is why we have children.”)

Of the acting trio, there are mixed results. Fassbender has been in a million films this year, and though I haven’t seen Shame yet, I’m betting that his performance as Jung is the dullest of the year. He shows little indication of why he’s doing what he’s doing–he violates a sacrosanct rule by sleeping with a patient, but aside from a slightly wrinkled brow, doesn’t seem to suffer much for it. Knightley has an impossible task–her early scenes she has to go full crazy, thrusting her jaw out like she’s turning into a werewolf. I give her marks for giving it the old college try, and certainly some insane do act like that, but I couldn’t help but see the acting. She’s much better when she’s recovered and studying to be a psychiatrist on her own, debating with Freud over the sexual drive destroying the ego.

Mortensen stealthily steals the show, although I had trouble buying him as Freud, given the little I know about him. There’s a nicely done scene of he and Jung exchanging letters, ending their friendship. Even more vivid in this otherwise dry film is Vincent Cassel as a psychiatrist who has been institutionalized for not believing in repressing anything. When he escapes by jumping over a wall, I wanted to go with him.

I couldn’t help but find A Dangerous Method dull and talky, and was sneaking peeks at my watch often. My grade: C-.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

One response »

  1. I liked it more than you, but I’m not overly enthusiastic either. There’s some rich thematic ground to cover here, particularly how our sexual urges affect and inform our intellects. I don’t think the movie really forces the issue or even deals with it in a very compelling way, though, which is surprising considering it’s a Cronenberg film. I’d say that it held my interest, and I’m glad I saw it, but it seemed strangely polite for the most part. Even when Knightley was being spanked.

    I loved Mortensen’s performance, though. It’s a great scenery-chewing performance made all the better because I don’t even think he meant for it to be scenery-chewing. He’s lucky to be playing the old pro instead of the overeager noob, I guess, and he takes full advantage of having a constant prop (those cigars, heh) to work with. And you’re right, he stands out because of Fassbender’s dullness.

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