In director David Cronenberg’s highly anticipated A Dangerous Method, Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) tells fellow psychoanalyst Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), “Pleasure is never that simple.” Gross replies, “It is, until we choose to complicate it.”
Considering Cronenberg’s pedigreed cast — Fassbender, Gross, Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud and Keira Knightley as patient-turned-psychologist Sabina Spielrein — you’d think a pleasurable film is guaranteed. Unfortunately, a mirroring of its players’ stifled emotions complicates its resonance.
The film, which screened at the 49th New York Film Festival, follows the true story of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud’s friendship, as well as Jung’s relationship with Spielrein. We’re transported from Zurich to Austria to Kushnacht, spanning 1904 to1913; no historical stone is left unturned. Cronenberg, meticulous in his attention to detail, approaches the unfolding drama with the analytical eye of its characters, but the outcome proves as buttoned up as their pristine petticoats. What emerges is a film predominantly dialogue-driven, but lacking the heart to convince the audience of its players’ plights.
To its credit, the first act is engrossing: Knightley lets loose some delicious physicality as Jung’s disturbed but gifted patient, Fassbender and Mortensen’s initial meeting yields several laughs and solidifies the yin-yang attraction that binds the two, and Cassel’s Gross proves a devilishly charismatic instigator to light the powder keg that is Jung and Spielrein’s budding affair. The dichotomy between analyzing and analyzed is nicely done. By the time Spielrein, well on her way to being cured, asks Jung whether a crazy person like herself could ever practice psychology and he answers in the affirmative — “We sane doctors have serious limitations,” he notes — you can’t help but chuckle.
This was a time when psychoanalysis was just planting roots; those who chose to practice it inevitably found themselves dirtied by the digging. It’s a fascinating subject, which is why, as the film progresses, it’s difficult to grapple with the lack of emotion one feels toward Spielrein and Jung’s attraction. Their physical relationship is fleshed out and they speak as colleagues at a certain point, but the source of their love — beyond the sexual or their mutual career interests — never quite reveals itself. Jung and Freud’s ever-growing rift, meanwhile, is played out mainly through letters — true to reality, surely, but the undercurrent of competition and divergence from their similar ideals isn’t given enough of a spark to make the separation felt.
Much of the entertainment to be found in A Dangerous Method is due to the chemistry of its cast, and the humor of the director (despite the serious tone and subject matter of the film there are moments when it is not treated so, with little quips, jokes and plucky deliveries peppered throughout). Fassbender and Mortensen are fantastically matched, playing the parts of starry-eyed student and rigid master, respectively, with humor and charisma. Knightley’s arc is the most palpable — from unbridled madness to controlled chaos, she has much to work with (and wields it well). Cassel is a high point for me — he enjoys far too little screen time — his seductive mannerisms and unraveled presence perfectly mirroring Gross’ “Never repress anything” mantra. Even Sarah Gadon, as Emma Jung, infuses strength to the quiet of playing Carl’s insecure-yet-introspective wife.
I find myself torn regarding A Dangerous Method. There’s plenty to love, but, as Spielrein quotes, “Perfection is only arrived at through sin.” Perhaps if the film’s sentiments had loosened the corset to let way a little more sin, it would’ve achieved as much.
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