When it comes to the roots of psychoanalysis, David Cronenberg's latest isn't all talk

A Dangerous Method

Directed by David Cronenberg

Opens Jan. 20 at the Charles Theatre

“Talk?” Even in her wild agitation—barely able to force out words, writhing in her seat—Sabina Spielrein’s puzzlement is clear. But that is exactly what her new physician proposes—that she sit in a chair and he sit in a chair behind her and they talk about what might be causing such a state. And thus, in a Swiss hospital in 1904, is born the practice of psychoanalysis, the root of modern psychology/psychiatry and much of our understanding of the human mind. It’s also the beginning of the relationship between Spielrein (Keira Knightley) and her doctor, Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), which will cycle through many stages and, according to the version of this real-life story told in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, shape both the relationship between Jung and his idol/soon-to-be-mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and the development of psychological theory itself. It’s a fascinating account and an enormously rich film, though in truth it works best when talk gets out of the way.

Freud had come up with the idea of “the talking cure” but had never actually tried it on a patient. When Jung does, and succeeds in bringing Spielrein’s mania under control enough for her to begin medical school herself, the two men become colleagues and friends. Meanwhile, the sexual nature of Spielrein’s symptoms and obsessions, Jung’s colorless marriage to wealthy Emma (Sarah Gadon), and the perverse influence on Jung of pure-id patient Otto Gross (a delightful Vincent Cassel, stealing every scene he’s in) push Jung and Spielrein toward an intense affair. (Being veddy proper Europeans of their era, they couple half-clothed, although her masochism means a steady diet of enthusiastic flogging.) In this telling—Christopher Hampton based the screenplay on his own play, which was based on John Kerr’s nonfiction account—Jung’s relationship with Spielrein precipitates the differences and disagreements lurking beneath Jung and Freud’s professional and personal relationship, leading to a dramatic split from which their bond never recovered and, in many ways, from which psychology itself is still healing.

Between unpacking the development of analysis, limning the mores and understandings of European society in the early 20th century, and filling out the intricate triangle between Spielrein, Jung, and Freud, Cronenberg has a lot to cover in a mere 99 minutes. That, and the screenplay’s origin in Hampton’s stage play, perhaps accounts for A Dangerous Method’s occasional exposition-itis and acute event condensation. When Mortensen first appears in his built-out nose and grayed temples as Freud, worries flutter about a full descent into school-play terrain—plot points ticked off, every conversation conveniently serving as a philosophical debate, etc. That the film doesn’t take this turn is in large part a credit to the man behind the camera. It’s difficult to reconcile the fact that this David Cronenberg is the same man who made the head-exploding horror flick Scanners. Never less than elegant, his direction makes subtle but astute use of the camera, highlighted by a series of split diopter shots (Google it) that place two people in the same frame at radically different depths, a perfect visual metaphor for the bonds and conflicts in the story.

Hampton’s script sings as often as it’s stilted, and the top-flight cast imbues these corseted and stiff-collared historical figures with red-blooded life. Indeed, what makes A Dangerous Method most compelling is its exploration of the messy contradictions of the people who set themselves the task of bringing scientific rigor to understanding the subconscious. Knightley’s character enters screaming, committing to the kind of conspicuous, tic-ing “insanity” that wins Oscar nominations but not Oscars (see also: Brad Pitt in Twelve Monkeys). Yet over the course of the film, Spielrein’s intelligence and passion shine through convincingly. Likewise, Fassbender, protagonist and yet de facto straight man to two more colorful characters, contrasts Jung’s ramrod uprightness with the heedless urges welling under his shirtfront, navigating the shoals of fidelity and transgression, suppression and expression in each key relationship in a believable way. And then there’s Mortensen’s Freud, a courtly eminence whose radical theoretical leap about the basis of psychological unrest in sexual development contrasts with his utter rigidity to considering any other option; who dismisses Gross as an addict while puffing his ever-present cigar; who probes the subconscious but at first urges Spielrein to “forget and suppress” her feelings for Jung; who purports that all people are fueled by the same drives and desires but lets differences in religion and class stoke his resentment of Jung. It’s the opportunity to get an unbidden glimpse inside these heads that makes all the talk worthwhile.

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