Let’s Talk About Sex

A Dangerous Method (November 23, 2011)     4/5

Directed by David Cronenberg (Sony Pictures Classics)

A Dangerous Method, the latest by Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg, is injected with exactly the proper amount of frankness and ambiguity. Following the relationship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), the film regards sexuality as the basis for the discovery of psychoanalysis, but as the relationships of each man become more complicated, so do their differing views of the human mind. Based on the play by Christopher Hampton (who also wrote the screenplay) and adapted from the book by John Kerr, the movie certainly seems fit for the stage, consisting mainly of one-on-one conversations. This aspect, in addition to frequent jumps in time, often spurs a lack of connection between the audience and the characters onscreen, although the subject matter remains a fascinating endeavor.

In 1904, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) arrives at the clinic of Carl Jung in Zurich. She is clearly very ill, and it soon becomes obvious that her mental deterioration is the result of a tumultuous relationship with her father. In order to fully penetrate the source of her illness, Jung begins to use “the talking cure,” as pioneered by Sigmund Freud, who will soon become his mentor. Freud, being a stern, undersexed family man, seems to think he is the greatest psychologist who ever lived, basing his new method in the idea that all complications of the human mind are rooted in sexuality. Jung is receptive to the ideas of Freud, as the two converse through letters and stage the occasional meeting. It becomes apparent that this is the correct way to cure Sabina, whose increasing knowledge of the mind soon presents her as a useful colleague to the two psychologists. That is, until she seduces he who cured her illness – the married Jung, himself. The film then becomes a strange, emotionally distant love story, as Jung’s new relationship causes him to question Freud’s constraints for psychoanalysis. And as the years go by, neither man is able to patch the deep wound left by Sabina Spielrein.

Needless to say, this is an example of an incredibly well-acted film. Knightley is the standout, expertly portraying a girl on the edge of insanity, but as she heals, a woman of both intelligence and lust. Mortenson is also terrific, using a man of iconic image to effectively portray one who may be falling prey to his own psychological theory, or manipulating it to convey important ideas to Jung. Freud claims that his sexual theories are most important because they establish psychoanalysis as a process rooted in science, rather than superstition, which Jung soon becomes intrigued by as his affair commences. It is when Freud finds out about the affair that everything changes, and the film becomes more difficult to decipher. There certainly becomes a distance between the men, but one never doubts that Freud believes he is always in control. It is Jung who truly becomes a changed person, questioning why sexuality should be repressed, if his own pain can help others heal, or if this world can ever truly be understood. Fassbender is exceptional, encompassing Jung’s mental journey with subtlety and grace. He is certainly one of the year’s breakout performers, and holds this film together with his effortless presence and execution.

Thus said, the film is a snapshot of how modern thought was developed. It is also a very interesting piece about how ideas of sexuality were created, and how their frank discussion and analysis in the early 1900s would develop into the modern customs we have today. This may be a love story, but it is far from romantic. A Dangerous Method is more of a contemplation, rather than a product that is meant to make one feel something. I admit that a little more emotion would have made it all a bit more compelling, but that does not make the film any less successful as a character study. It is also shot superbly by Cronenberg-collaborator Peter Suschitzky, whose placement of characters close to the camera only makes us realize how distant they seem. This is intentional, considering how Jung and Freud’s new thoughts may prevent them from living full lives. Psychoanalysis presents a whole new world of thought, and as Europe will soon become ravaged by war, what will be far more “dangerous” are the ideas developed by these two men. But the film takes a small-scale approach. Now that Jung has enhanced a new method of thinking, the views he has of his own life will be forever changed.

A Dangerous Method is never electrifying entertainment, but it is a very poetic, delicate film about things that are quite the opposite – namely sex and ideas. Or more importantly, the power both have over our own lives. Psychology has been a prevalent theme in the films of David Cronenberg, but often executed through genres of horror and science-fiction, such as Videodrome and The Fly. However, many of his recent films have rooted the human mind within the state that it actually exists – reality. These have included A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, and although I have not seen either of those acclaimed films, I can say that A Dangerous Method fully deserves a high spot in the Cronenberg catalog, mainly because of how different it actually does feel. Not only from Cronenberg’s previous work, but also of any modern film. This is no masterpiece, but a short, dialogue-driven slice of both beauty and power; a break from any melodramatic film Oscar season has to offer. Maybe more directors should try “the talking cure.”

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3 Comments

  1. I have heard quite a few negative things from people I know, but I’m still looking forward to this film. Too good of a cast pass it up!

    Good review!

  2. Good review. The performances are good, even though Knightley may be over-acting quite a bit, and it looks great, but the film also just feels like a series of vignettes with no real feeling or drama to it. Basically what I’m trying to say was that I was bored and this story just never really got off the ground.

    • I understand why a lot of people weren’t receptive to it. I think one of the film’s goals was to be extremely subtle. The characters all effect each other in some way or another, so it requires quite a bit of work to unravel their development. It’s a movie about psychoanalysis that also asks for psychoanalytic interpretations. But I agree that this sort of backfires; if we are not engaged in the characters, why do we care about the story they partake in? This clearly isn’t the most engaging film in the world.

      But I think the performances help, and despite the fact that Knightley may be all over the place, I think that’s just the spark “A Dangerous Method” needed. She plays the character well, and overall, I think the actors provide some life where drama and emotion are clearly lacking. But despite everything that isolates the audience, I still found myself intrigued. And if Cronenberg was able to accomplish that, I think he fulfilled his goal. But that didn’t work for a lot of critics and audiences, so it’ll be interesting to see if “A Dangerous Method” lingers awhile longer, or simply fades from memory.


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