Talking Movies

February 8, 2012

A Dangerous Method

David Cronenberg and a stellar cast tackle a clash between two heavyweights of 20th Century intellectual history, but this film punches just below its fighting weight.

Michael Fassbender is Carl Jung, Viggo Mortensen is Sigmund Freud, and Keira Knightley is their shared patient (and alleged muse) Sabina Spielrein in a riveting drama about the disagreement between the two great founding fathers of psychoanalysis that split the medical movement at its founding. Atonement scriptwriter Christopher Hampton adapts his own play which begins with Sabina’s arrival at the Swiss clinic where Jung works. This allows him put Freud’s untested theory of the ‘talking cure’ into practice, leading to a meeting with Freud that sees the two men become friends and colleagues. Freud, however, sends a deranged colleague Otto Gross (played by an unruly Vincent Cassell) to Jung for treatment, and after their bruising debating sessions Jung succumbs to his darkest desires with Sabina, who is on her way to becoming an analyst herself; and a disciple of Freud…

Knightley, sporting an impressive Russian accent, gives a startlingly alien performance as the hysterical girl who slowly transforms herself into Jung’s intellectual equal. Her attacks of hysteria include a disturbing jutting of her jaw that conveys a body almost breaking in trying not to scream. Sabina’s recovery allows Knightley to play a nuanced fragility. Fassbender (looking oddly like James Joyce) is assured as a clever, kindly man corrupted by his own darkest desires. Viggo has a determinedly supporting role as Freud, but is droll in delivering put-downs, and wordlessly noting the class and religious divide between himself and Jung; which are slightly overplayed. He also excels at making Freud charismatic but ambiguous; did he send Gross to corrupt Jung because Jung threatened to undermine Freud’s sexualised theorising?

There is minor body horror in Sabina’s account of a waking hallucination of a mollusc attaching itself to her spine, but the real Cronenberg touch is the S&M between her and Jung. Cronenberg’s triumph is using deep focus in the therapy sessions so that we can observe the faces of both Jung and Sabina, and in foregrounding consistently compelling verbal fencing between characters who professionally dissect language for its nuances. Emotions trump ideas though… Freud’s insistence on total obedience or excommunication, his dogmatic atheism, his refusal to abrogate sexual interpretations to anything, and Jung’s counterpointing of a spiritual instinct and metaphoric rather than literal readings of Oedipus complexes are never adequately explored. Jung’s empirical discovery of the complexes is glancingly depicted, but his theory of synchronicity (a psychic echo of physical events) is rendered as stark gibberish, while Freud’s concept of the death drive and Jung’s anima/animus theory become Sabina’s ideas…

This is an excellently played drama that is always absorbing, but more detail about the ideas of the characters rather than just their emotions would have made it truly great.

4/5

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