If movies about exploding heads, human houseflies and evil twins can be smart, intellectual even, than David Cronenberg made a name for himself in the 80’s with the most psychologically perceptive and artistically adroit monster movies since James Whale. His films were schlock, but they were Ivy League schlock. These days, Cronenberg has moved into making more “adult” oriented films, like A History Of Violence and Eastern Promises, but he hasn’t left the high-mindedness behind, even if the gross-outs are in much shorter supply.
A Dangerous Method, a talky but brilliantly acted and fascinatingly dense historical drama, chronicles the birth of modern psychology in the friendship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, as they dawdle through beautiful Austrian gardens and courtyards around the turn of the century—or correspond via letters excogitating on the future of their craft.
For his fourth outstanding performance of 2011, Michael Fassbender plays Jung as a famous headshrinker who’s really a closet neurotic, wrestling night and day with the unexplainable facets of his embryonic art. Freud (Viggo Mortenson in a pitch-perfect performance of laidback, cigar-smoking cool and scarily persuasive rhetoric) claims all neurosis can be explained through sexual repression. But then how does Jung cope with the dreams and intuitions that disquiet him, as they always seem to foreshadow what’s to come?
Jung’s latest patient, Sabina (Keira Knightley), a tormented young Slav with memories of fatherly abuse that transmogrified into uncontrollable sexual excitement, seems to make Freud’s case. Whenever the thought of physical punishment enters her brain, the girl whips her backbone up and down like a convulsion and juts her lower jawbone out past her upper teeth in the manner of a prehistoric Neanderthal. We can only assume that she’s subduing waves of traumatically charged orgasms. Consequently, Knightley’s performance is not nearly as even-keeled as those of her compatriots, but when her character interrupts fits of sobbing mania with pleasant laughter it is quite chilling.
Anyway, Jung is able to get her out of the loony bin and into school, but soon after he takes her on as a mistress, perhaps as an experiment to test if satiating her hunger will remedy her affliction or possibly to destroy his own sexual constraints. “Why must we repress our most basic natural instincts?” he ponders. His prim and proper bride (the lovely and delicate Sarah Gadon) bears his children, but is hardly the vixen he craves. A depressed lothario (Vincent Cassel) checks in at the hospital and inspires Jung to follow his libido. The experience leaves the bespectacled therapist twisted and confused; it threatens his friendship with Freud, who champions credibility over discovery; and, when Sabina becomes a psychoanalyst herself, an unexpected role reversal makes its way into the picture.
For context, A Dangerous Method plays out around the dawn of “talking cures”—an idea that emphasizes conversing through a person’s problem to help them overcome it. Up until the therapist revolution, most mentally ill people were thrown into asylums and dunked into ice baths till they stopped screaming. The most interesting aspect of the film is the way it traces the relationship between Freud and Jung—the two fathers of modern psychology—who couldn’t come to terms with their radically different approaches to the same method. Freud was pragmatic and rational, while Jung was idealistic and toiled with mysticism. Freud liked to warn his associates, “Forget any hope of curing your patients.” But Jung was, maybe foolishly, out to cure the incurable.
Cronenberg has grown into a masterfully controlled and disciplined filmmaker whose style is engrossing and effective without ever being pretentious or ostentatious. Using deep focus compositions, the director stages the conventional therapy shot of the patient close up in the foreground, facing away from the doctor looming behind. It’s a common trope of cinematic psychoanalysis, from Spellbound to There’s Something About Mary, but Cronenberg gives it metaphorical meaning, implying the ironic introversion of such a discourse. The edges of the frame are often blurred. The camera stays relatively still, unless motivated to track along side of one of Freud and Jung’s deceptively calm and focused outside strolls. The addictive score by Howard Shore pits passionate violins against the monotonous rhythm of a base, suggesting a battle between eroticism and repression, rationality and fancy.A Dangerous Method educes from its real-life historical subjects a most disconcerting insight: that even an expert of the human mind like Jung couldn’t take sanity for granted. By the end of the film it’s 1914, and Jung’s expression of an ominous dream in which Europe runs red with blood evinces the uncanny and unpredictable nature and capacity of the human psyche—something that even Freud’s slips and phallic symbols could never hope to explain. Haunting and beautifully acted, the film, in its final moments, stares ahead into a world and a future no man will ever truly understand.