For over thirty years now, David Cronenberg has been one of cinema’s foremost surrealists, a master of the grotesque. His formidable intelligence has helped keep his movies from becoming schlocky; his films are brilliant and disturbing because he knows how to play on the edge of attraction and repulsion, and he understands the ways in which sex and violence can so often bleed into one another. For him to make a movie about Freudian psychoanalysis seemed ideal; I thrilled at the thought of Cronenberg dressing up his scenes of abjection in period costume.
So it’s hard (especially considering the success of his previous two films, both masterpieces) not to be a little disappointed by A Dangerous Method, in which Cronenberg returns to his familiar themes of sexual fetishism and the unconscious, but at arm’s length, and with the briskness of a clinician rather than the intensity of an artist. Might the problem be with Christopher Hampton’s script, based on his stage play? There’s too much polite dialogue, as if the film itself had decided to prescribe the talking cure for its own subject matter. Set in early twentieth-century Zurich and Vienna, A Dangerous Method opens with Carl Jung’s (Michael Fassbender) first encounters with an “hysterical” female patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), whose childhood beatings at the hands of her father have morphed into a masochistic sexual kink. Unsettled—but also apparently turned on—by the power these abuse fantasies have over Spielrein, Jung wants to cure her, and he turns to his mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) for advice. Freud insists on the primacy of what he calls “the drive”: the irrational will to pursue one’s desire, regardless of the cost. For Freud, it’s not a matter of finding a cure for one’s condition, so much as confronting it and finding a means of understanding it. It’s a lesson that Jung will eventually learn firsthand, as he finds himself tempted to help Spielrein act out her sexual fantasies.
As even a cursory plot summary suggests, A Dangerous Method is in many ways an intellectual film. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: we could use more films that are this smart, and this interested in ideas. It’s a shame, though, that it isn’t more visceral. Cronenberg’s visual flair—his talent for showing us truly unforgettable images—is underutilized here, aside from a few choice shots (such as one of a bowl of mangled food that looks like bodily waste). The acting, too, is impeccable but mannered. Fassbender, capable as always, is stuck playing the least interesting character of the three. Mortensen as Freud is better; it’s a droll, sensitive supporting performance. The real surprise is Knightley, whose early scenes have a raw, animalistic power. As Spielrein gets herself under control, though, much of the energy goes out of the film, as if it can’t really get going. There’s something delightful about the thought of a Cronenberg costume drama—of perversity seething beneath a genteel surface—but A Dangerous Method amounts to too much tell, not enough show.