December 15, 2011
The doctor-patient relationship is a sure way to attract an audience's prurient interest, as long as proper ethical boundaries are ignored. This brings us to a movie by and for grown-ups with actual attention spans: "A Dangerous Method."
A satisfying drama of historical speculation, substantially researched and shrewdly dramatized, it concerns the fathers of modern psychoanalysis, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, and their patient Sabina Spielrein, widely believed to be Jung's lover (and later a psychotherapist). Admirers of director David Cronenberg, whose recent work includes "A History of Violence" and the Russian mob movie "Eastern Promises," may find themselves disoriented by what does and does not happen in "A Dangerous Method." The on-screen violence is sparing here. But more than one sort of brutality exists in the world. A sneaky classicist, Cronenberg keeps a tight lid on the characters' emotions, and to some degree his own technique. Yet this makes the conflicts, when they ignite, all the more interesting.
Cronenberg and screenwriter Christopher Hampton have opened up Hampton's 2002 play "The Talking Cure" just enough to take advantage of the location shooting in Vienna and elsewhere. When the scenes move indoors and stay there awhile, the results ebb and flow naturally. The film feels intimate, slightly unnerving — and vividly inhabited, thanks to Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortensen and Keira Knightley.
When first we meet Fassbender as Jung, he is a rising star at a Zurich clinic in 1904. Expanding on his mentor Freud's groundbreaking psychoanalytic techniques, he goes to work on a desperate young Russian patient, Spielrein. The introduction of Knightley in this role practically dares the actress to find somewhere to go afterward; for a while, Knightley's "hysteric" externals — the twitches of the neck and hands, the furtive, then shrieking vocal jabs — threaten to suffocate the film.
But the performance does go somewhere, and while it's odd Hampton doesn't show much of the transition between the woman we first see and the sharp-witted, sophisticated intellect that comes later, "A Dangerous Method" gives you plenty to absorb in its place. Namely, it is the tale of a forbidden affair. Jung, married with an expanding family, is an attraction/repulsion case unto himself, scared by but drawn to Spielrein's demons. (They derive from her association, in her childhood, of her father's beatings with her own sexual arousal.)
"Only the clash of destructive forces can create something new," Spielrein says at one point. The affair, and Jung's unwillingness to come clean about it, leads to a rift between Jung and the steely, dispassionate Freud.
These three actors, plus a few supporting players (Vincent Cassel plays a particularly tricky patient of Jung's), fill out a small canvas of betrayal and envy and desire. On this, their 15th project together, Cronenberg and longtime editor Ronald Sanders are wrestling with psyches both analytical and tormented, struggling for control of each new situation. Here and there in "A Dangerous Method," Cronenberg jumps from a long shot to a close-up on the offbeat, when we don't expect such a cut. Such flourishes keep the dialogue-intensive scenes nice and taut, and a little bit off-kilter.
The wonderful thing about Fassbender and Mortensen? Several things, actually. They're effortlessly convincing in period, and they know how to make recessive characters intriguing. They're movie stars with very little vanity or interest in winning an audience's sympathies when such things aren't warranted. Knightley, who is top-billed, may overdo it at the beginning, but her jagged edges and feral intensity mellow into a portrayal of real complexity.
So much is addressed here, from anti-Semitism to punitive gender roles to broken hearts. So much, yet so glancingly. "A Dangerous Method" may be the provocative Cronenberg's least-provoking film. But it's also one of his strongest and saddest.
'A Dangerous Method' -- 3 1/2 stars
MPAA Rating: R (for sexual content and brief language)
Running time: 1:39
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