A Dangerous Method
Directed by David Cronenberg
Screenplay adapted by Christopher Hampton from his play “The Talking Cure,” and John Kerr’s “A Dangerous Method”
Starring: Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, Vincent Cassel, Sarah Gadon
Running Time: 99 minutes
MPAA rating: Rated R
There are just two splashes of blood in David Cronenberg’s latest film, both atypically modest.
A dash and a drop to be precise, marking the start and stormy shipwreck of young doctor Carl Jung’s love affair with his own psychiatric patient, Sabina Spielrein, a rich, beautiful, and very troubled young woman.
At the remote alpine sanatorium where Sabina has been dragged kicking and screaming, Jung sits her down and asks her to talk.
And talk Sabina does, making history in the psycho-medical “talking cure” field and achieving lasting fame in psychoanalytic circles.
Talking turns out to cure her particular case of sexual hysteria within weeks, and so completely that Sabina becomes first Jung’s assistant, then his student and lover, then finally an international respected scholar and psychiatrist in her own right.
This was the “dangerous method” that eventually broke up Jung’s close friendship with his mentor, the inventor of the “talking cure,” Herr Doktor Sigmund Freud. Their relationship revolves around discussing sex, and the repression thereof. It’s no accident.
An avid but gentle (and gentile) Swiss doctor, Jung is played by Michael Fassbender as a man so alive with ambition for his work that he’s prepared to neglect all else, including his wife and even his manners. He listens and records as Sabina gradually discloses a pattern of parental abuse that ends in passionate lovemaking-theirs. She had repressed one inadmissible fact. She is turned on by that same parental abuse.
Appearing as a kind of catalyst for Jung is French actor Vincent Cassel, playing an incontinently sexual patient called Otto Gross, who fiercely rejects repression. His ultimate fate, we learn, is tragic.
As the hysterical Sabina, Keira Knightley grinds her teeth in pterodactyl-jawed and pantomimed rictus, and she distracts us with a Russian accent. Two predictable things happen. Sabina “transfers” to Jung. Jung’s wealthy, beautiful, understanding wife (Sarah Gadon) is pregnant, but despite Freud’s warning he responds to Sabina.
Cronenberg bathes the lovers in clear alpine light, white linen, and the rococo elegance of the sanatorium, and Vienna or Zurich. While we praise Doktor Jung’s patience and his spanking abilities, we wonder who could lust for this exhausting madwoman? Luckily, Sabina calms down and becomes a respected intellectual.
All of this takes place among lakes and peaks so Valhalla-like and Aryan that you can almost hear Wagner on the soundtrack. Oh, wait; that is Wagner on the track, along with a 1900 recording of the Valkyries, with the leitmotivs and idylls of Siegfried thrown in. (Ironically, Sabina loved Wagner’s Siegfried. “Spielrein” means “game-free” or “pure game” in German and Sabina carries its own tremulous freight.)
As the screen pans languidly across the postcard ranges, you can hardly blame Cronenberg and his cinematographer for falling in love with the “alpenglow,” to the point where golden-pink frosted alps become Aryan characters in their own right.
No wonder Freud is all too conscious of his vulnerability in Austrian society as a Jew talking about sex. Later on, Freud and Jung take the boat to America, and he has to go economy class while his student Jung has a first-class cabin paid for by his wife.
Freud has much to lose, we infer, and thus he defends that modicum of repression, that most alien element in most Cronenberg movies. Of all his films, this is the most un-Cronenberg, and yet it’s also his most revealing about him to me.
Yet there’s something very flat and unerotic about the movie and I can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s a story that starts and ends with Freud and Jung’s clash over sexual repression, and you can’t blame me if I preferred those Valhalla-like views of the Alps to scaling Keira Knightley’s courageously hardworking jaws and nipples. Maybe I’m imagining it but I suspect Cronenberg did too…