Talking cure: Freud vs. Jung in A Dangerous Method

Great performances and a smart script elevate Cronenberg's latest.

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The growing pains of modern psychoanalysis form the backdrop for A Dangerous Method, a sublimely well-acted film that works as an historical drama, a tortured love story and a meditation on human sexuality.

Set in Europe in the years before World War I, the film stars Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung, portrayed here as a rising star in the still-new field of psychiatry. Viggo Mortensen plays Sigmund Freud, the reigning titan whom Jung both idolizes and consults with on the case of Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly), a disturbed girl who has come to Jung as a patient but ends up becoming much more. Each of the actors is spellbinding, and they keep A Dangerous Method from ever becoming a stuffy period piece.

A little backstory: Freud is, of course, the father of psychoanalysis, a system of talking out problems with the patient. As A Dangerous Method begins, Jung is using Freud’s techniques to treat Spielrein, a young woman thought to be crazy and prone to laughing fits, mania and off-putting physical contortions. (Seriously. Knightly shakes and twists and juts her jaw so violently that she resembles David Naughton realizing his inner beast in An American Werewolf in London, only without the help of Rick Baker’s makeup effects.) Jung keeps digging, and it turns out that Spielrein’s problems are rooted in childhood and are deeply sexual in nature.

Jung takes the case to Freud, and the two men bond over a first meeting that lasts more than 13 hours. This bond will be tested until it breaks, of course, but in the beginning Freud sees Jung as a possible successor who can spread the psychoanalytical gospel after he is gone. The two men don’t entirely see eye to eye, however, as Jung thinks Freud is too set in his view that everything comes down to sexual desire and dysfunction, and Freud believes that Jung’s willingness to investigate the out-there world of parapsychology (telepathy, coincidence, etc.) will hurt the acceptance of psychoanalysis by the public.

Jung has a wife (Sarah Gadon) who spends most of the film either pregnant or lamenting that she's popped out yet another girl. It’s a stable, normal relationship — exactly the type of thing to send a driven man like Jung into the arms of another woman. He can’t help himself, and he has a willing and ready partner in Spielrein.

There are reasons that doctors shouldn’t sleep with their patients, many of which surface during the course of Jung and Spielrein’s romance. As the relationship breaks down, things are further complicated by the fact that Spielrein is a psychiatric student herself, allowing her to analyze her doctor/lover right back. Spielrein eventually seeks out Freud to be her new analyst, which further poisons the Jung-Freud relationship.

The last half ofA Dangerous Method is fascinating, as these highly literate characters talk and talk and talk some more, taking on issues of human sexuality and psychology that a lesser film would have fumbled. All three lead performers create indelible individuals: brilliant, flawed and human.

David Cronenberg is a director widely known for early, shocking work like Naked Lunch and The Fly, which misses what a fabulous craftsman he has become. A Dangerous Method is firmly rooted in reality and never goes anywhere bizarre, which makes it easier to appreciate what a well-constructed film it is. Yes, it will be too talky for some, and period films always alienate some portion of the audience (i.e., 12-year-old boys), but for adults looking for history with a side of brains, A Dangerous Method is smart thinking.

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