A Dangerous Method

Reviewer: James van Maanen
Ratings (out of five): ****

At times, and very briefly, as I watched David Cronenberg's new movie A Dangerous Method -- about Freud and Jung, their relationship, a female patient whom they "shared" for a time and another, male, whom one analyst passed to his peer -- the 1962 John Huston film Freud would flicker through my mind. This was brief, yes, because I wanted nothing to distract me from the excellent work at hand. But I could not help but marvel at how much movies have grown up -- in terms of subject matter and how it is handled -- in the nearly half-century between the two films. That is to say, when cinema actually takes the trouble to make real and intelligent use of what is permitted, now that so many barriers have fallen in regard to what may be shown and discussed on screen, what marvels we can sometimes be served.

This becomes even more interesting when one considers the career of Cronenberg, who has in the past seemed to delight in pushing all sorts of envelopes, particularly those involving sex and violence, often used in tandem. With his latest work, this filmmaker is pushing the intellectual envelope, I think, by giving us such an intelligent and insightful movie about (yes, sex and violence figure into the mix) the human mind and body, the practice of psychotherapy, the doctor/patient relationship, shame, envy, ambition, hypocrisy, aging and death. There's more, but what you take away from this film will depend greatly on on your own background and prior knowledge.

There are three main characters here: Jung (brought to wonderful and full life by British actor Michael Fassbender, who even looks a good deal like the real Carl Jung); the patient (and later doctor) Sabina Spielrein, a role and performance that ought to have brought Keira Knightley a well-deserved Oscar nomination; and Freud (given less screen time but brought to life with great wit, humor and just a little, hmmm, jealousy by Viggo Mortensen.

 

A lesser but still major role, that of the patient/doctor Otto Gross, is played by that fine French actor Vincent Cassel, whom Cronenberg used to much more obvious and heavy-handed effect in Eastern Promises, but is as good here as I think I've ever seen him. Radiating intelligence and sex appeal (rather than simply the latter, as is more often the case), Cassel creates, in what seems a minimum of screen time, such a thoughtful, full-bodied character that we miss him when he disappears from the film. This is one of the quietest, most specific performances I've seen the actor give.

The smart, literate screenplay by Christopher Hampton (based on his own play, which was in turn based on the book A Most Dangerous Method by John Kerr) cleverly weaves history and personality into the themes that Hampton and Cronenberg want to tackle, and it seems to me that the writer and filmmaker honor the former even as they expand on the latter. Those of you who know more about Freud and Jung (and Spielrein) than I may quibble here and there, but enough of the characters come through to work as both icons and human beings.

As good as Mortensen and Fassbender both are, it is Knightley who actually holds the film together and makes us care. From her first scene, as a character suffering from what might today be termed PTSD, among other things, this actress creates such living, breathing pain than she makes us more empathetic than I recall ever feeling toward any character she's played. (She did this also, but to a lesser extent, in the recent London Boulevard.) She's as beautiful as ever; now, with this vulnerability and openness (the character is not open, but Ms Knightley somehow lets us see her fully), the actress pulls us in as never before.

 

While the film concentrates on a relatively brief period in the lives of its characters, what we know of history allows us to appreciate the specifics of this time frame. When, at movie's close, we learn what happened to Sabina Spielrein, the information carries enormous weight and personalizes yet again the awful consequences of one of history's major atrocities.

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