Monday, January 30, 2012

A Dangerous Method

A DANGEROUS METHOD: Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortensen, Keira Knightly (93 min.)

While Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung may have been the two biggest pioneers of psychoanalytic discourse, the fathers of the twentieth century, perhaps their story is not the most interesting narrative to deliver to the screen. But David Cronenberg does his best. A Dangerous Method suggests something wicked or threatening with a title like that, and although there are certain moments in the picture where you see flashes of the Cronenberg we all know and love, the film as a whole may not entirely resonate beyond a single viewing. Nothing sticks nearly as much as the theories Freud and Jung practiced, defined, and perfected as the calendar ushered in the Industrial Age across the World.

This is a film reliant on performances as it is heavy on dialogue and the tension and evolution within conversations. The three central performances keep the film alive. Michael Fassbender stars as Carl Jung who, as the film opens, has taken on a new patient. Keira Knightley plays Sabina Spielrein, a woman perceived by the primitive medicine of the time as completely mad. Sabina must be carried into the hospital, writhing and screaming and contorting her body against the oppressive doctors and nurses. She screams and she throws her jaw out, almost as if her insides are fighting for escape. Jung decides to try a new practice on Sabina, the “talking cure” introduced by Sigmund Freud a few years earlier. The technique eventually works, Sabina is cured, and she soon works in the university as a colleague. Only her cure brings about certain insatiable sexual desires, and Jung cannot resist temptation despite the growing family he has begun with his wife.

As Jung falls into an affair with Sabina, he visits Sigmund Freud in Vienna to discuss the case. Freud is played by Viggo Mortensen as the measured and level-headed observer he most surely was. Freud and Jung discuss the future of psychoanalysis; where Freud believes they must stick to the theories of sexual repression and the explainable, Jung argues for expansion of the beliefs and introduction of more spiritual, or more coincidental, twists of fate and mystical thoughts. Freud believes this is unsafe as the detractors will surely pounce on any mysticism they introduce. Meanwhile, Sabina is creating her own theories of psychoanalysis and bringing her experience as a patient to the table.

The second half of A Dangerous Method centers on the power struggle between Freud and Jung, and the burgeoning career of Herr Spielrein. Only there is a noticeable lack of any real tension in the film. These two proper men never raise their voice or confront one another beyond epistolary communication. Seeing these men write polite letters back and forth is not particularly compelling. I know this is the way these men communicated in the early 1900s, but it fails to translate into anything meaningful or impacting on the screen.

The performances are very much the highlight of the picture. As Jung, Fassbender shows us a man constrained, whose own beliefs are brought into question by the arrival of Sabina. He feels desires, but cannot act on them because it is against his practices. Mortensen as Freud is all careful measurement and calm, and his confidence works as a threat to Jung’s uncertainty. Knightly is almost too much to handle in the early scenes as Sabina writhes and screams and wails against the established medical practices. But her character undergoes the biggest and most pronounced transformation. The power struggle between these three characters should have been more gripping, but the calmness and rigid social obedience stifles any real tension.

Cronenberg is a brilliant director whose best work focuses on the struggle between the body and the mind within his characters. He feels like the best man for the job. Only the film ties his hands in how freely he can operate in his own techniques. There are flashes of the discomfort and unease Cronenberg pulls off so wonderfully in most of his work, namely in the masochism of the Jung and Spielrein sexual relationship. And yet, A Dangerous Method does not feel as dangerous or tense as it should. The dialogue is handled well but grows tiresome at times. This is a marvelous picture in look and ambition and performances, but when the necessity for tension arrives things don’t quite work.