A DANGEROUS METHOD Review:
- Has there been any better director-actor one-two punch in the last several years than the pairing of David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen? A History of Violence, Eastern Promises - together, the two have mined the depths of psychological drama, crafting thought-provoking films that are never generic, never cut-and-dried. Now, the two have reteamed again for the cerebral, strange, and captivating A DANGEROUS METHOD, and they're joined by Michael Fassbender, Kiera Knightly, and Vincent Cassell. The result is a fascinating look at the real-life relationship between Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and a sexually-disturbed patient that caused the two titans of psychotherapy to have their first meeting-of-the-minds.
A Dangerous Method is, surprisingly, a much more straightforward and less-stylized movie than what we often get from Cronenberg. And yet, I think the style of the film suits it. Because the whole movie is about the repressed desires, the hidden madness, that lurks within otherwise civilized men and women. The film explores the very thin line between doctor and patient, between scientist and subject. This is a film where Freud, Jung, and Jung's patient - Sabina Spielrein - are all obstensibly circling each other like hawks, each one gaining and losing the psychological advantage over the other under various circumstances. And it is in the conversations and exchanges and debates between them that we are made to really think about the human psyche. It's a fragile thing, and for men like Freud and Jung who thought long and hard about madness, well ... could they themselves be that far removed from it?
Still, you know this is no regular old period piece when the movie begins with a writhing, screaming Sabina being hauled off the Carl Young's stately manor to be treated for her psychoses. From the get-go, Cronenberg forces us to confront the reality of a smart, attractive woman who's gone totally crazy. And in a long, almost hard-to-watch sequence at the movie's beginning, we watch as Sabina sits in a chair, in a small, bare room, as Jung sits behind her, questioning her, observing her reactions. And Knightly as Sabina - she looks like a woman in need of an excorcism - screaming, flailing, jaw-jutted out to almost cartoonish extremes. It's an out-there, disturbing scene, but as performed by Knightly, it's pretty powerful. We're here at the very beginnings of serious psychoanalysis, and it's fascinating to see a woman who, before, might have just been tossed into an asylum, now get mentally dissected by Jung, analyzed via the "talking cure" popularized by Freud. The effect that (what would now be routine) therapy had on her is remarkable. But of course, the converse there is ... if Sabina can be helped through her madness with such relative ease, then doesn't it stand to reason that Jung could be driven to madness just as easily?
Eventually, Jung uses Sabina as an excuse to consult with the greatest luminary of psychotherapy of the time, Sigmund Freud - and Freud becomes a mentor to his younger counterpart. Freud by this time had amassed a school of eager, devout students and followers, and so while he liked and admired Jung, their relationship became prickly as Freud became annoyed with Jung's more out-there ideas. Jung was more of an idealist than Freud, hoping to cure people rather than simply analyze them. Jung also dabbled in parapsychology - telephathy, psychic abilities, etc. - and Freud felt strongly that those were flights of fancy that undermined the seriousness and credibility of their work. At the same time, Freud had a certain coldness and distance to him - he viewed anyone he met, Jung included, as a prospective subject to be analayzed, but saw himself as mostly above analysis. Jung, meanwhile, begins to realize that he is not necessarilly so far removed from his patience. He's learned to repress things and appear normal and civilized, but he recognizes that he and Sabina may not be that different. When Jung meets Otto Gross, a psychologist who believes in hedonism and acting without restraint, he's begins to question a lot of things that he formerly held as sacred truths.
Certainly, this has been a hell of a year for Michael Fassbender, who's very quickly established himself as one of the best actors out there. Indeed, his performance in A Dangerous Method as Carl Jung is absolutely outstanding. Jung is a tightly-wound man of principle who, at the same time, is brimming with barely-contained emotion. You can see this constant inner-struggle play out on Fassbender's face - he plays Jung as a man who, it seems, the gears in his head are constantly turning. There's a gravitas and power that Fassbender brings to this role that few others could have, and he effortlessly embodies the character - the accent, the mannerisms, the mentality. The same can be said for the always-great Viggo Mortensen as Freud. Viggo disappears into the role - one that's totally different from any I've seen him play before. Often Viggo plays men of action and destiny, but here he's wizened, prickly, intellectual. Knightly is also very, very good as Sabina, the Russian-Jewish patient whose childhood abuse at the hands of her father led her to develop severe phobias and anxieties and sexual disfunctions. Vincent Cassel provides an added spark as the free-thinking Otto - I mean, is there anyone better at playing smarmy and deviant?
As I said, the movie is very dialogue heavy, but the cool thing is that the conversations between Freud, Jung, Sabina, and Otto are fascinating, and even when they go on at length, you don't mind, because Cronenberg creates that feeling of eavesdropping on the conversations of two of the 20th century's great thinkers. Perhaps some of the more academic discussions can get a bit dry at times, but hey, this is Cronenberg, so the movie has a weird, perverse side to counterbalance the talking heads. Cronenberg doesn't really judge his characters - but the juxtapositions are what make the movie so interesting. He shoots crazy sadomasochistic sex scenes with a steady, clinical eye - the sex scenes are shot essentially the same as the psychoanalysis scenes in Jung's office. It all reinforces the idea that the lines between sex, life, death, doctor, patient, pleasure, and pain are all pretty blurry sometimes. And certainly, for Freud and Jung, all of these things were interrelated.
Cronenberg is one of the most interesting directors working today, and what I like about him is that his movies always leave you a little bit unsettled, even as they get you thinking about big ideas. And he's never afraid to get weird, offbeat, or disturbing to make his point. A Dangerous Method is fascinating because it's about these men of reason and logic dealing with craziness, psychosis, and madness. Making sense out of the abstract - out of dreams and visions. Cronenberg, Viggo, and Fassbender deliver another winning film.
My Grade: A-