David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method is the story of three psychoanalysts: the two who would define the theory and practice, and the one forgotten doctor who influenced them both.
The movie centers on Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) during the duration of his six-year partnership with Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). In the beginning, Jung is only starting to experiment with Freud's talking cure, as he calls it, but as the film develops, so does the personal and professional relationship between the two.
The forgotten doctor is Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). The Russian Jewish psychoanalyst is little more than a footnote in history, but she is now thought to have had a significant impact on both Jung and Freud's later theories.
Spielrein first appears in A Dangerous Method as a patient. She arrives mid-breakdown at Jung's hospital in Zurich, where she is literally dragged kicking and screaming in to see the doctor. She is so traumatized she can barely speak.
When she sits in front of the doctor, she convulses from the pain of hysteria, and despite that we've been told she is the well-educated daughter of a physician, she seems barely human.
I think that people... think that at the beginning of the movie the character is over the top, and they equate that with overacting, Croneberg told filmcomment magazine about the critical reception of Knightley's portrayal of Spielrein.
I'll admit that that was my first reaction too. Spielrein is hysterical in every meaning of the word: uncontrollably emotional, mad with fear and practically hilarious. Knightley's writhing and laughing and twitching are just too ridiculous to be taken seriously, especially combined with the silliness of her Russian-Jewish accent.
But, as the movie goes on, you quickly realize that A Dangerous Method could be Knightley's finest acting performance yet. Spielrein is in the midst of an utterly hysteric episode in the beginning, and it probably took immense physical control to be that out of control.
As Spielrein begins to get better, she forces her ticks down under the skin, where they boil and fight to break out. Like a stutter, they get worse under stress.
An accurate portrayal of hysteria should evoke uneasiness in the viewer. The raw, painful emotion of Spielrein's hysteria is violent and upsetting. Laughter is our best way to defuse the discomfort we feel at looking too close to our desires. It separates us, building a psychic defense from the raw emotion that we can repress but Spielrein cannot.
Spielrein/Knightley's frightening lack of control is also quite erotic -- erotic in the sense of loss-of-self and loss-of-self-control. Appropriately, A Dangerous Method is full of sex.
However, it is not a sexy movie. While graphic at times, the sex scenes are hardly arousing.
When speaking at the Jungian Institute, Cronenberg said that Jung and Spielrein are purposefully detached in these normally-intimate moments. It's the double entendre of playing doctor. For the analyst and the future-analyst, the sex is a study. They are analyzing a sexuality that is totally new to both of them and completely latent in civilized Europe at the time.
Although she has already helped Jung with his experiments --visualized in a poignant scene when Jung gives his wife a lie-detector-like test about their marriage -- the moment Spielrein loses her virginity is the moment when she first becomes an analyst herself.
It is also when she first begins to really heal. As a virgin, Spielrein is at her psychic worst. Her absolute repression of her sexual urges stews under her skin, and actually causes the overtly sexual hysteria we witness in the opening, with her orgasmic spasms and even phallic chin-jutting. But once she begins to open up, so to speak, and to explore her desires, she begins to get better. Only after all of her kinky fantasies are explored can she become a doctor and an uptight-member of Austrian society.
Interestingly, the sexual study has the opposite effect on Jung. Spurred into adultery by Otto Goss (Vincent Cassel), Freud's protégé whose motto is never repress anything, Jung delves into his own protégé's fantasies. This is the moment of his decline.
For his whole life, Jung was the ideal 19th century Austrian man -- a respected doctor, the husband of a rich, conservative wife. (Notably, Jung's wife only appears as the reaction to Spielrein. The Wife always appears after the Mistress. The two women are lessons in semiotics; they wear identical clothes and hair styles, but Emma Jung, the controlled wife with whom sex is more duty than pleasure, is blond while Sabina Spielrein, the uncontrolled oriental, has dark hair.)
But, the sexual discovery Jung makes with Spielrein ruins him. What he finds when looking into the abyss is unclear, but there is something there that scars him. The fact that it takes World War I, the most traumatic thing to ever happen to Europe at the time, to bring Jung back to life speaks to the damage caused.
We are told in the film that it's Jung's break from Freud, coupled with his loss of Spielrein, that sends him over the edge, but I would argue otherwise. I know that Cronenberg would disagree with me, but why should he be right? Just because he made the movie?
Jung's disagreements with Freud start because Jung doesn't think sex is the cause of all psychic disorders. We want to side with Jung, but what's shown in the film is that if not everything is about sex, most of it is.
Some form of the word sex is used 14 times in this review, effectively proving that either this movie really is about sex, or that I have some psychological issues that I must deal with.
In A Dangerous Method, Freud plays both father and mother in Jung's oedipal disorder. In the beginning, Jung desires Freud's approval and nurturing embrace. But, Freud is also the father of psychoanalysis and Jung's mentor, and Jung can't make his mark in the field until the relationship is destroyed.
The film is clearly layered and provocative. But, A Dangerous Method has its flaws, like we all do. At times, the film is unsure of itself and wavers between psychological drama, romance and biopic. There is a long chain of letters between Freud and Jung that efficiently summarizes what amounts to years of tension.
Additionally, the characters seem to figure themselves and each other out rather quickly. While the dialog feels natural, it also feels a little cold, and, actually, analytic. How much of that is just from the distillation process from book, to play, to movie is unclear.
It could also be a conscious choice on Cronenberg's part. Given the contents of the film, it would be a justifiable choice, but it leaves the movie a little flat, especially when layered on the richness of the scenery. (The movie was filmed on location in Cologne, Vienna and Lake Constance, and is gorgeous.)
In the end, A Dangerous Method is a somewhat confusing movie. However, it is not confusing in a bad way, but in the right way. Jung and the problems surrounding him are mysteries for us -- the viewer and analyst -- and for Jung himself to explore. Like the human psyche and the ever expanding theory about its nature, there isn't an easy answer to the movie.
A Dangerous Method: Opening Nov. 23
Directed by David Chronenberg; Staring Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics