When David Cronenberg first started directing, he made movies about characters so out of touch with the workings of their own minds that their repressed fears and desires started to take fleshly form. With A Dangerous Method, he focuses on characters concerned almost exclusively with the way minds process fears and desires, and finds them not much happier, or even less repressed. A Dangerous Method covers a few key years early in the lives of psychologists Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Sabina Spielrein, years spent reshaping the way people think about the way people think. Spielrein’s name is less familiar than the others, but the film suggests she deserves to be more than a footnote in the history of psychoanalysis. Spielrein was Jung’s patient before studying under him—and likely his lover. Their relationship may have affected Jung’s interactions with Freud, who viewed him first as a successor, and later as a rival.
Adapted by Christopher Hampton from his play The Talking Cure and John Kerr’s non-fiction account A Most Dangerous Method, the film opens with Jung (Michael Fassbender) first experimenting with Freud’s “talking cure” when Spielrein (Keira Knightley) comes into his care at a Swiss mental hospital. Knightley enters as a cackling madwoman, writhing in torment and jutting her jaw out to Bruce Campbell-ish extremes. Taking a chance on implementing some of Freud’s then-new theories, Jung leads her through the “talking cure.” Recalling some formative childhood experiences, she moves toward a breakthrough, and later, is able to resume life outside the asylum, while remaining close to—and eventually beginning an affair with—her doctor and mentor. Meanwhile, the Protestant Jung meets and begins a complex relationship with the Jewish Freud (Viggo Mortensen), who warmly receives him as a disciple and a psychoanalytical ambassador to the Gentiles. Then Freud develops second thoughts.
Apart from a few heated moments—an argument here, a spanking scene there—A Dangerous Method keeps a measured, observational distance from its characters, all of whom are more comfortable communicating in sharply worded letters or knowing glances than face-to-face conversations. Even Fassbender and Knightley’s behind-closed-doors moments have more than a hint of therapeutic language. The approach suits the subject, but proves dramatically frustrating, favoring hushed pops over fireworks. So does A Dangerous Method’s elliptical storytelling: Fassbender and Mortensen fight over Jung’s insistence on merging psychology and the supernatural, but the film offers few details, and lets key developments happen offscreen.
In the end, Cronenberg is less interested in the history of psychoanalysis than in how the lives of its early proponents illustrated its limitations. The central characters all play out variations on the complexes they describe in papers, but they don’t seem to realize it as their egos and passions get in the way of science. Knightley’s unrestrained performance—often easier to admire for its daring than its effectiveness—contrasts with Fassbender and Mortensen’s take on their famous characters. The former is filled with straitlaced assurance, the latter with gnomic, professorial magnetism. Mortensen, cast against type, particularly excels in the part. If only the film itself was as good at getting beneath the skin of the material. Hampton’s script has abundant clever lines and telling moments, but Vincent Cassel’s few scenes as Otto Gross, a psychoanalyst and libertine later cast out of Freud’s circle, illustrates the dryness of the film around him. Cronenberg has made a wholly satisfying case study, but not quite enough of a movie.