Mark Reviews Movies

A Dangerous Method


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: David Cronenberg

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Vincent Cassel, Sarah Gadon

MPAA Rating: R (for sexual content and brief language)

Running Time: 1:39

Release Date: 11/23/11 (limited); 12/16/11 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 15, 2011

Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) sees himself as Columbus, knowing he has discovered a new country but unaware of exactly what it might be; it is up to the next generation to explore the terrain. Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) is part of that subsequent generation; he sees Freud more as Galileo, condemned for his ideas by people who would not be bothered to even look through his telescope.

Jung is at once a fervent admirer of his colleague and one of those who is hesitant to glance through Freud's figurative telescope. After all, the old man is obsessed with sex, and Jung, raised in a Protestant family and ingrained with ideals about monogamy, has really only experienced sex for its procreative purpose. Freud is persuasive, Jung worries, more so for the way the man's ideas combat his own beliefs than for whatever effect those concepts might have on the population at large. Freud plants the seed in his young apprentice's mind, and others begin to tend to the earth. For Jung, who repeatedly states his belief that there are no coincidences, the assemblage of these external forces cannot be random chance; he must give in to his desires and, as another young psychoanalyst puts it, surrender.

It might be too easy to become trapped in the dialogue of A Dangerous Method and ignore the actions surrounding it. The screenplay by Christopher Hampton (based on his play The Talking Cure, in turn based upon the book by John Kerr) is densely written, featuring the words of two brilliant men and an equally formidable woman speaking in the code of their profession. In those words, they reveal every corner of their being, yet, in a convenient trick allowed to them by their occupation, they have the ability to say exactly what they mean to say about themselves and others while hiding beneath a veil of objectivity—hypotheses and generalities.

The film tracks the flow and ebb of the relationship between Jung and Freud between the years 1904 and 1913. At the start, Jung is working at a psychiatric hospital in Zurich. His wife Emma (Sarah Gadon), a well-to-do woman whose considerable wealth becomes a point of jealousy for the struggling Freud, is expecting their first child (A boy to be born on Christmas Day, she promises him, only to be wrong on both counts).

Jung's newest patient is Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a young woman with plans to become a doctor herself. In her first introduction (The film's first moments, actually, insisting we consider the severity and importance of the field Jung and Freud are exploring), she is manic—screeching, stuttering through thoughts, and jutting out her lower jaw in a contorted mask of internal pain. It is no coincidence to Jung that she shares the initials of his imagined test subject in an analysis of how he intends to move forward with Freud's concept of a "talking cure." He is uncertain if even his mentor has attempted the method.

Later, Jung and Freud meet and discuss their work during a non-stop 13-hour discussion. It is the first of many talks between the two men—face-to-face until mutual admiration begins to dwindle, after which they take the form of letters—who disclose as much about themselves as they do their respective practices. Jung, a firm believer in the power of self-improvement and supernatural forces at work in the universe, believes the ultimate goal of psychoanalysis should be showing patients a goal to which to live up; Freud, a devoted "pragmatist," as Jung calls him, sees the end goal as showing patients who they are and helping them cope with that reality.

Jung's beliefs, Freud supposes, are junk to the actual exercise of psychoanalysis, guaranteed to bring ridicule to a field that is already being criticized as laughable. Jung finds a way to prove his hypothesis by anticipating a cracking sound in Freud's office and noting that Sabina is interested in the Siegfried myth at the same time he has been considering it. Watching the two men use their own and each other's theories to cut down the other man (Freud refuses to reveal his own dream after interpreting one of Jung's; later, Jung turns Freud's analysis that a man must eventually "kill" his father into the rationale that Freud's own work has become meaningless while, effectively and ironically, proving it) exemplifies how Hampton's script uses the intellectual to move into the realm of the dramatic.

The turning point arrives at Jung's hospital in the form of Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), another colleague of Freud's who has issues with his father, an addiction to cocaine, and a zealous conviction in the necessity of polygamy for psychiatric health; Jung finds his arguments seductive. Of course, he would, as he has developed sexual feelings toward Sabina, which he supposes are simple transference (Considering how their relationship plays out, with him playing the role of her abusive father from whose actions she first became aware of sexual desire, this is probably the case) but from which he cannot escape.

Director David Cronenberg and the cast find the right note of detached observation while hinting at the inner and interpersonal tension coming to a slow boil beneath (Fassbender is particularly adept in showing Jung's transition from a man who insists, "A law student doesn't need to rob a bank," to one who is convinced that only a wounded therapist can be of any help to a patient). A Dangerous Method is an intelligent historical speculation that captures the spirit and potential destruction of discovery.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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