Review: A Dangerous Method (Cronenberg, 2012)

How perfect is it that David Cronenberg has made a film about Freud, Jung, and the birth of psychoanalysis? So many of his earlier films have dealt with the perverse links between sexuality, violence and death that this adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s 2002 play, The Talking Cure, couldn’t seem like a more perfect fit.

Set at the dawn of the 20th century, A Dangerous Method centres on the changing relationship between Carl Jung and Sabina Spielrein: the former a young but respected psychiatrist, the latter his patient turned lover. When Spielrein (Knightly) is committed to Dr. Jung’s psychiatric hospital she is in a bad way. Though bright and well educated, she has been reduced to a nervous, spasming wreck by her abusive father. Jung (Fassbender) sees her as the perfect patient to attempt an experimental “talking cure” treatment, outlined by his idol, famed father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud (Mortensen) but never actually put into practice. Spielrein’s condition quickly improves but during treatment she reveals intimate aspects of her past abuse – though she loathed the humiliation her father put her through, she found his violence to be sexually arousing and since formed an inseparable link between violence and sexuality.

After some encouragement by Otto Gross (Cassel), a sexually radical former psychiatrist admitted to his care, Jung finally gives into his temptation and begins an affair with Spielrein. Yet when his guilty conscience permits him to break off the affair, Spielrein is transformed into the embodiment of a woman scorned and wreaks havoc upon his personal and professional life.

In any film of such intimate interaction it’s the performances that are key and thankfully the three central roles all perform admirably. Fassbender is fantastic as the conflicted, idealistic Jung and although his performance is perhaps the least memorable, it is the glue that holds everything else together. Knightly has the most grandstanding role and though she still retains some of her usual stiffness this is unquestionably her best performance yet and she handles Speilrein’s development from gnarled, animalistic mental patient to shrewd and controlling psychiatrist surprisingly well. Despite Knightly’s showy performance, the real scene stealer is Mortensen as Freud. After their first meeting, Jung admits he is afraid of Freud’s influence on his ideals and it’s easy to see why – in Mortensen’s hands he is gently authoritative and effortlessly charismatic. The mind-games played by Jung and Freud during their exchanges are easily the highlight of the film and this secondary relationship frequently threatens to outshine the films central romance.

Yet for all its impeccable casting and mechanical excellence, A Dangerous Game somehow fails to come together in a truly satisfactory way. The individual pieces are fine but as a whole it is somehow lacking. It just never seems to amount to anything. Scenes are followed by other scenes, events followed by other events but there is no rhythm, nor the sense that events are building towards anything. Things just sort of happen for an hour and a half. These things are well acted and often interesting but by the end it’s hard not to feel a little tired and frustrated at the lack of cohesiveness.

Some way into the movie Jung and Speilrein meet again to work on an academic paper and Jung vows that this time they will be strictly professional. After one quick scene showing them working together we see them engaging in masochistic sex and the result is simply jarring. Shortly after, Jung is pleading Speilrein not to leave him but up until this point we have seen no indication that he actually cares for her. There is a disconnect between what we are told these characters feel for each other and what we actually see.

A Dangerous Method’s biggest crime is that is simply never lets go. So much of it is spent discussing unleashing sexuality but even when we are shown this release it feels somehow restrained; repressed even. We are told there is passion and we see that there is passion but we never feel that there is passion. Instead what we get is a film that is frequently interesting, occasionally fascinating but never truly exciting. How very Freudian.

Platform rating: 6/10

 

Kane Basterrechea