Cronenberg’s latest is something of a period piece. Horse-drawn carriages, manicured gardens, haute couture, and erotic spanking. .. Wait, what? Yes, sexuality (transgressive sexuality in particular) is an integral component in A Dangerous Method, as its primary players are the fathers of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung, played by Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender, respectively. One only has to mention Freud’s name to conjure phrases like “penis envy” and “castration complex.” But the salient sexuality in the film comes not from Freud, but from Jung and his affair with patient/student Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly). The film is really about two relationships – Jung and Spielrein, and Jung and Freud – and how they develop over the 10 years that the film spans.
Keira Knightly’s manic hysteria as Spielrein has been unfairly criticized as exaggerated and off-putting. But for all her cringing, chin-jutting, and delirious laughter, there is an indelible vulnerability in her performance. Viggo Mortensen is fascinating as a relaxed, arrogant, often-humorous Freud. And Fassbender is engaging as always.
The film very effectively integrates the development of Jung’s relationships with Freud and Spielrein with the development of his theories of the psyche. For anyone familiar with Jung’s work, the nascent incarnations of archetype and anima/animus are evident. And Vincent Cassel appears as the lecherous and anarchistic Otto Gross, a clear personification of what Jung would later term the “shadow self” or “dark side” wherein all the impulses the ego would normally consider unsavory are held. (And, yes, it was Jung who coined the term “dark side,” not George Lucas.)
The only poorly-executed moments come in Cronenberg’s portrayal of the issues that made for the fundamental discord between Freud and Jung. Freud took issue with Jung’s emphasis on spirituality and religion as a channel for psychological analysis – he thought it was limiting. Jung saw Freud’s techniques (especially finding the root cause for neurotic/abnormal behavior in childhood trauma and repressed sexuality) as reductive. Jung believed in the mysterious nature of the psyche. “Our psyche is part of nature,” he says (the real Jung, not Fassbender-Jung), “and its enigma is as limitless. Thus we cannot define either the psyche or nature. We can merely state what we believe them to be and describe, as best we can, how they function.” (Jung, Man & His Symbols, 1964). And Jung saw religion as a legitimate expression of the psyche’s mystery.
Nowhere, however, is this evident in the script. We hear Jung complaining to Spielrein that there must be something other than just sexuality to account for changes in the psyche. And later, in Freud’s office, he seems to get very excited about a “burning in his stomach” that he calls a “catalytic exteriorization phenomenon” – basically a precognition ability. But at no point does the film mention religion or spirituality and at no point does it have any bearing on the development of Jung’s character. It simply feels peripheral and out of place in the story – which is odd, because it was central to the breakdown of Jung’s relationship with Freud.
Jung’s relationship with Spielrein is at turns sad and sexy and ultimately satisfying, but his relationship with Freud, while it has some affecting moments, as a whole falls flat.
Verdict: It is an intelligent, beautifully-shot film – and wonderfully-acted. Unfortunately, one of its primary components (which happens to be the most famous relationship and feud in the history of psychology) feels lacking and out of place.
Medium: Amazon Instant Video. 1st viewing.
Rating: 3.5 stars.