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Affairs of the Intellect

Cronenberg fleshes out birth of psychoanalysis
Keira Knightley and Michael Fassbender in A Dangerous Method
Keira Knightley and Michael Fassbender in A Dangerous Method

A DANGEROUS METHOD: Directed by David Cronenberg. Screenplay by Christopher Hampton, based on his play The Talking Cure, based on the book A Most Dangerous Method by John Kerr. Cinematography, Peter Suschitzky. Editor, Ronald Sanders. Music, Howard Shore. Starring Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, Vincent Cassel and Sarah Gadon. Sony Pictures Classics, 2011. R. 99 minutes. Three and a half Stars. 

It’s an odd thing to leave a movie screening feeling rather like you wish you’d read the story instead. David Cronenberg’s latest film — and his third with Viggo Mortensen, who disappears into the role of Sigmund Freud — is based on a play that’s based on a book, and somewhere in there is a story that gives the reader or viewer time to absorb the ideas and suggestions packed into the dialogue, to translate the glances and tensed shoulders into an embodiment of those ideas. 

A Dangerous Method slips past like a series of slides, a string of minor and major events in the birth and development of psychoanalysis and the transformation of a patient into a doctor. At the start, a writhing, feral Sabina Spielrein (a somewhat unconvincing Keira Knightley) arrives at the hospital where a calm, buttoned-up Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) works. He treats Spielrein with the “talking cure” and shortly thereafter employs her as an assistant of sorts, where her observations are as swift and perhaps more pointed than the doctor’s own. 

Spielrein’s shift from stuttering, grimacing patient to student and eventually Jung’s lover plays out strangely, in leaps and bounds that make it seem as if all she had to do was describe what she felt, and why she thought she felt it, in order to overcome it — at least on the surface. As she turns toward “normal” behavior, Freud sends Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel) to Jung. Gross is both doctor and patient, a man who has chosen to repress nothing. His influence is clear on Jung, who, with no small amount of guilt — his tiny, pretty wife keeps trying to give him sons — becomes physically involved with Spielrein. 

Much of A Dangerous Method is a power struggle of some sort, most overtly between Jung and Freud, between their ideas and ideals, with Spielrein as catalyst, her own ideas to some degree smothered by those of the more famous men. (Perhaps a stronger actress might have made Spielrein feel more central, but Knightley can’t control a scene like her costars.) The relationships mirror the ideas and arguments: Is sex a destructive or creative force? Can psychoanalysis only describe and explain what the self is, or should it offer a means to finding what it could be?

The intellectual affairs — ideas shifting and changing as they pass back and forth among these thinkers — are what heat up the screen, in large part thanks to the elegant screenplay by Christopher Hampton (Atonement, The Quiet American). But in casting Mortensen as Freud, who is rarely without a cigar and who simmers with certainty and pride, Cronenberg deftly shapes the dynamics among his main characters: Freud has a physical presence that dominates and seems more earthy, more lusty, than what actually passes between Jung and Spielrein. Freud’s slow movement and quick mind take up so much mental space, it’s as if the younger thinkers, his intellectual heirs, have to wriggle their way out from under his influence in order to give their own ideas air to breathe and grow. The sense of oppression, the Cronenbergian physicality, is all in the mind.                  


Keira Knightley and Michael Fassbender in A Dangerous Method