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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Canadian Film Review: A Dangerous Method (2012)

* * *

Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen

It was probably inevitable that David Cronenberg would one day make a movie about Sigmund Freud, given his career-long preoccupation with the psychosexual. What wasn't inevitable was how tame that movie would be when he finally made it - well, tame for a movie where one of the central relationships centres on sadomasochism. Elegantly mounted but somewhat lacking in spirit, A Dangerous Method is a fine film, but ultimately minor Cronenberg.

The film begins with the arrival of Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) at a psychiatric hospital in Zurich, where she becomes a patient of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). Admitted for hysteria, Sabina is treated to a new form of therapy by Jung, one which emphasizes talking and dream analysis, and comes to understand that her anxieties are the result of abuse she suffered at the hands of her father when she was a child. Recognizing Sabina's intelligence, Jung allows her to assist in his experiments and encourages her to study medicine herself, but he also finds himself dangerously attracted to her. Despite his misgivings about entering into a sexual relationship with a patient, the two begin an affair which is rooted in bondage and humiliation.

The affair has many consequences. First and most obviously it complicates the relationship between the two of them, particularly when Jung has to break it off and wants to return to a purely doctor-patient relationship. It also complicates Jung's marriage as his wife, Emma (Sarah Gadon), becomes aware of the relationship and makes several attempts to put an end to it, most overtly by sending a series of anonymous letters to people in positions of authority over both Jung and Sabina. Jung's relationship with his mentor, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) is also affected as Freud finds himself in the centre of the conflict between Jung and Sabina after Jung tries to return to a platonic/business relationship, and as his experiences with Sabina inspire Jung to branch out into his own theories, theories that conflict with Freud's own.

The story spans several years, charting the changing relationships between Jung and Freud, and between Jung and Sabina. The conflicts are well-established and explored, and though the characters themselves spend a great deal of time talking and analysing their relationships, the film isn't overly didactic. It also isn't lacking in subtlety and Cronenberg incorporates a number of nice, quiet touches. For example, the film has an obvious preoccupation with dominance - Freud dominates Jung professionally; Jung dominates Sabina sexually; Jung is dominated by his marriage in that he relies on his wife's fortune. The financial domination inherent in the Jung marriage is hinted at early and following the scene in which Jung and Sabina consumate their relationship, Cronenberg makes a point of focusing on Sabina's blood stained nightgown. Later in the film, after Jung ends the relationship, Sabina cuts him with a letter opener and slaps 20 francs on his desk, in essence taking back sexual control and asserting financial control over the relationship.

There are many things to admire about A Dangerous Method, particularly the performances (Knightley's starts out a bit rough but gets considerably better once it relaxes out of its overly mannered phase). Mortensen, who always works well with Cronenberg (A History of Violence and Eastern Promises), is excellent and Fassbender's performance here is like the flipside of his performance in Shame, more restrained but no less powerful. The production itself is great looking and the story moves at a good pace but, all things considered, the film doesn't quite have the soul of Cronenberg's best work. His best films have frayed, dangerous edges and this one is just a little too tidy and a little too formal.


E. said...

I loved Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud and I found the entire movie very interesting. However, although I have also watched Shame, it wasn't until I read your review that I realised Michael Fassbender was in both of them!

Anh Khoi Do said...

Despite its qualities and its terrific analysis of domination, A Dangerous Method could have gone further. In my opinion, the film tries to make us believe that the Jung/Spielrein relation and the conflicting theories broke the friendship between Freud and Jung. The screenwriter could have also added a few scenes regarding the allegations of plagiarism Freud faced. In short, A Dangerous Method is a little bit incomplete, but it's nonetheless an enjoyable film.

Norma Desmond said...

@ sexta-feira: he's one of those actors who disappears into his roles.

@Anh Khoi Do: I agree that the film makes a little too much of Spielrein's role in breaking up the Jung/Freud relationship.

Avigail Avramov said...

I had the opportunity to see this movie and i have to say that this is a very tense psychological drama and i recommend it to all genre lovers.