Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Talking it Out: A DANGEROUS METHOD


In A Dangerous Method, Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) meets Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). It’s a film as much an academic character study as it is a dramatized clash between crucial differences in the field of psychology just as it was gaining some respect. This is a clinical and, pardon the pun, methodical film, based on a similar play by Christopher Hampton, about intellectual lives spilling over into the personal lives of professional men hiding their passions and their personal and academic foibles. You might not expect such a relationship drama from David Cronenberg, who started his career directing gooey body horror like Scanners and The Fly, but in recent years has turned to icy, brooding, bloody thrillers like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. But with A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg has made an outwardly composed film about messy psychological interiors, a film in which stillness and silence masks all manner of sins and contradictions, horror in its own interior way.

Expressive psychological horror is found in the character of Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a mad woman who is carted into Jung’s sanitarium howling and contorting herself, her psychological problems expressing themselves with painful physical movements. The film begins with Jung trying out the “talking cure” on Spielrein, who Knightley provides with great gasping hesitations in her answers, speaking through teeth not clenched, but painfully twisted, her jaw jutting out fearfully far. It’s a raw performance. The path history takes this woman on is a fascinating one; the role she plays in the film, her relationships to the men in question as well as to psychology in general, become more fluid than at first appears possible.

Jung grows fascinated with this patient and feels close to a breakthrough. That’s when he decides to head off to Vienna to meet and consult with the elder statesman of his profession, Freud. In contrast to Knightley’s Spielrein, Fassbender’s Jung is slick and carefully composed. He speaks with a cold clip, even to his wife (Sarah Gadon), a tone that grows suspicious when confronted with a brilliant, but crazy colleague-turned-patient (Vincent Cassel). The first glimmer of passion we see from Jung is when he discusses his work with Freud.

The older man is clearly a kind of mentor figure, maybe even a father figure. Theirs is a helpful, collegial, inquisitive relationship, but one that grows subtly territorial and divergent as the years go by. It’s a relationship upon which all manner of Freudian implications can be read. (I’m sure that’d make Freud happy). Mortensen’s Freud first appears as a bearded delight, a warm and welcoming presence, inviting Jung to share a meal with his family and passing hours discussing their work. (In a rare light touch, the film takes silent notice of the way Freud is always chomping down on a cigar). But Freud nonetheless can grow harsh and judgmental adhering to the infallibility of his own work and to some extent worried about the path forward for the field to which he dedicated his life.

The differences in approach and philosophy between Jung and Freud are well documented, but the small, quiet genius of the film is the way it takes the potentially dry history of psychology and makes it into the stuff of stately period drama, then puts it in the hands of a talented director with a great cast and allows it to grow into something unsettling. At times it errs on the side of stuffy and slow, but this material, fully capable of tipping at any moment into the stuff of moldy docudrama, has instead the kind of tangled emotional undergrowths of quietly compelling cinema.

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