Monday, February 06, 2012

In Theaters: A Dangerous Method

Some people have called A Dangerous Method a change of pace for director David Cronenberg, but I'm not sure that's true. He's a director who's done a lot with Freudian imagery, psychological themes, and sexual "abnormality", so a picture about Freud and Jung is, as far as I can see, right in his wheelhouse. Partly adapted by Christopher Hampton from his play "The Talking Cure" (which was going to be the title but just wasn't sexy enough), A Dangerous Method looks at the interactions and thoughts of the two greats as well as a third, largely unsung figure, patient-turned-psychologist Sabrina Spielrein. Though a bit too unfocused to be as successful as it could be, the film does justice to the intellectual struggles of a young discipline, and is one of those films about smart people doing smart things that's becoming pleasantly more common these days.

Ms. Spielrein (Kiera Knightley) is introduced to us as a shrieking mess, being thrown into a mental hospital under the supervision of Dr. Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). Jung starts to use Freudian psychoanalysis on his new patient, letting her talk without excessive prompting, and she begins to work through her sexual obsession with humiliation. Jung's work eventually brings him into contact with Dr. Freud (Viggo Mortensen), who starts to see the younger doctor as an heir apparent. But as Spielrein heals, she begins to desire an actual sexual relationship, and even though Jung is married and aware that sleeping with patients is a very bad idea, at the urging of the decadent Otto Gross (Vincent Cassell) he gives in to temptation and begins a very kinky affair.

The arc of Sabrina Spielrein is easily the film's strongest point. At first her mania is so intense it's hard to believe there's a real woman under there. Knightley's performance would be over the top if we didn't know that some early "hysterical" patients were really that far gone, their repression amplified by a society and medical community that had no clue what it was dealing with. As she's allowed to talk, her vocal and physical tics ever so slowly subside, until the intelligent and powerful woman emerges. (She never loses her interest in humiliation, which is a good detail- S&M isn't a disorder, after all.)

Not quite as successful is the material surrounding Jung's relationship with Freud. A major dividing line between the two of them is that Jung begins to go beyond the purely scientific and gets involved with mysticism and supernatural concepts, but the movie never really has occasion to show this to us. It would have been interesting to see how Jung is lured away from science and tries to find more esoteric solutions to the problems that psychology can diagnose, but there's not really time for that. The friction between the two is well played by both actors (it's nice to see Mortensen playing a purely cerebral role), and we can interpret it as a more general tension, but theres not much of a place for it to go.

Generally this is a film with a number of very good things in it that could use a stronger focus. When I think about what I like about it, it's in the details; Jung's wife (Sarah Gadon) tacitly accepts that her husband has a mistress, Freud and Spielrein acknowledge to each other that they're both Jews in somewhat hostile territory, Cassell as Gross has what's basically a glorified cameo before stealing a ladder and escaping the hospital. Cronenberg brings a low-key realism to the proceedings, making it feel like a lived-in world rather than a costume drama (even though it technically is.)

This isn't the strongest of Cronenberg's recent films, but there's still plenty to enjoy. If the story is not honed as keenly as it could be, there is still something fascinating in the dynamic of Freud, Jung, and Spielrein, the third a catalytic presence in the worlds and philosophies of both men, while also charting her own way. If the intellectual fireworks taper off near the end, it still leaves plenty to think about.

Based on the play "The Talking Cure" by Christopher Hampton
And the book "A Most Dangerous Method" by John Kerr
Screenplay by Christopher Hampton
Directed by David Cronenberg

Grade: B+

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