For a movie about madness, A Dangerous Method is surprisingly sane. Especially when you consider that it’s directed by a man known informally as the King of Venereal Horror or the Baron of Blood—David Cronenberg—it’s surprising to find it as restrained and intellectual as it is. A lot of that might have to do with the fact that the film centers on the relationship between Dr. Sigmund Freud and Dr. Carl Jung and the resulting birth of psychoanalysis, causing the film to veer dangerously close to historical biography, which, on the surface, wouldn’t seem to have a lot of room for Cronenberg’s usual perversions.
Or would it?
Cronenberg has made a career out of twisted views of the world and presenting intriguing, if not disturbing, theories about the dichotomy of body and mind and the essence of human contradiction (The Fly, Naked Lunch, eXistenZ). A Dangerous Method may not be as radically presented as Cronenberg’s previous efforts, and may be eminently more watchable, but it doesn’t mean there still isn’t the ideology of impulse vs. intellect at play.
The ubiquitous (and eminently watchable himself) Michael Fassbender plays Dr. Carl Jung, the father of analytical psychology. Viggo Mortensen plays Jung’s mentor and colleague, Dr. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. Their friendship and subsequent falling out, from the years of 1906 to 1912, are stuff of legend, and provide the bulk of the narrative for A Dangerous Method. But it is in the playing out of their theories and analytical hypotheses, through the treatment of Jung’s patient Sabine Spielrein (played by Keira Knightley) that this film gets its real meat. Spielrein is brought to Jung for treatment and is initially thought to be incurable. Jung, however, is eager to try a new treatment out on the young woman—based on Freud’s theories—and is successful in turning the woman’s life around. But, during her treatment, Jung finds himself drawn into issues of libido and sexuality that he wasn’t prepared for, leading him straight to the expert—Freud—for guidance. Jung’s whole world, personal and professional, are turned upside-down by a new path to understanding the subconscious.
If you’ve gathered that A Dangerous Method isn’t your typical Thanksgiving holiday film to share with the whole family, you’re right. It’s talky and conceptual and intellectual and extremely dry. But, if you pay attention, it is also extremely erotic and emotional. Knightley goes a little over the top, but, for the most part, she does a good job playing the crazy girl who just needs to learn to control her impulses. Fassbender, for his part, is just crazy good—nobody plays restrained emotion better. Mortensen is his usual solid self, personifying Freud with stuffy charm and just a hint of humor. Cronenberg does well to just let these actors play, because the best parts of this film are when the dialogue crackles and you forget you’re sitting through a glorified Psych 101 lecture. Nothing is ever boring when Michael Fassbender says it.
Overall, A Dangerous Method is far from dangerous and even less sexy than the trailer makes it out to be. But if you like these actors and/or don’t mind two hours of people talking about ideas and human behavior, then consider this your holiday treat. And remember, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.