There are no Great Scott! You've discovered penis envy! moments in David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, which explores the birth of psychoanalysis, but given the general tedium of the goings-on here, such a scene might have provided sweet relief.
As it is, we're left with a stagy and interminably talky drama about three intelligent people and their endless conversations about the nature of mankind.
The film fits into Cronenberg's interest in the limitations of the body, and how one might expand those boundaries, but that doesn't make this riveting in the slightest.
Michael Fassbender stars as Carl Jung, a young psychiatrist working at a sanitarium and treating the hysterical Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a woman who has been deeply damaged by her strict upbringing, which has led her to equate abuse and humiliation with sexual excitement.
The psychosexual elements of Sabina's case become the basis for a lengthy correspondence between Jung and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and these two pioneers of a new specialty hit if off like gangbusters. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that Freud sees Jung as an acolyte while Jung considers his famous counterpart to be a peer.
Sabina begins to improve, eventually deciding to study to become a psychiatrist herself. The unspoken attraction between her and Jung finally bursts forth after Jung treats the hedonistic Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), a psychiatrist himself, who sees no moral dilemma in a therapist sleeping with his patients. Having apparently been waiting for someone, somewhere, to give him the go-ahead, Jung starts giving Sabina spankings.
Freud and Jung travel to America, they have a falling out, Sabina marries someone else, World War I threatens to break out, but none of these incidents add up to much drama. It's like watching a series of vignettes that never accumulate any kind of impact. (Christopher Hampton wrote the somnorific screenplay, based on his play The Talking Cure.)
But even when Cronenberg is off his game as a storyteller, his movies always look and sound great, thanks to his talented crew of regulars including cinematographer Peter Suschitzky and composer Howard Shore. Fassbender plays a much more buttoned-down role than usual, but makes an effort to bring him to life, and Mortensen provides a gravitas that's equal parts age and experience to Freud. (At times, it's like watching George C. Scott play the role.) Meanwhile, Cassel's patented brand of charismatic shiftiness couldn't fit his all-too-brief role any better.
Knightley, on the other hand, doesn't emerge unscathed. Her Russian accent -- speaking of Freud, I first typed Russian accident -- is borderline hilarious, and the more upset the character becomes, the more Knightley pyours on the vyowels.
A Dangerous Method reeks of Oscar-bait: acclaimed actors playing historical figures while wearing celluloid collars and carrying parasols around old Europe. But sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and a prestige piece is just a well-intentioned bore.