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A Dangerous Method

December 22, 2011
A Dangerous Method

Between Sigmund Freud’s libidinal preoccupations and Carl Gustavo Jung’s mysticism, a story of the early days of the psychoanalytic “talking cure” promises to be interesting. David Cronenberg’ A Dangerous Method — adapted from the stage play The Talking Cure, which was itself adapted from the historical book by John Kerr, A Most Dangerous Method — somehow lacks substance and never quite delivers on its promise.

The film primarily focuses on Jung (Michael Fassbender), initially in Zürich, where he takes on a young Russian Jewish patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly). Her particular affliction is never really explained, consisting of “fits” or “attacks” of grotesque facial and bodily contortions. Jung endeavors to apply the method that has been described in recent papers by Freud (Viggo Mortensen), talking Sabina through to the source of her illness in the hopes that once brought to light she can dismiss the cause of her bizarre actions.

For Freud, the method is purely analytic, with no actual cure being promised. Jung, however, wants to go further and work out how to allow patients to “become the people they were meant to be.” — a project which ultimately led to the groundwork of the modern psychodynamic therapeutic orientation. It’s possible he was influenced by his experience with another patient — and member of Freud’s Vienna Circle of analysts himself — Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel) who, having unearthed his own neurosis, proceeds to wallow in it and encourages his own patients to do the same in theirs.

And yet Jung has his own hang-ups, which he wouldn’t deny. His relationship with Sabina turns to infatuation, responding to her own transference, and to an affair behind the back of his wife, Emma (Sarah Gadon), and his professional colleagues. Meanwhile, his disagreements with Freud — not failing to mention the obvious Œdipal need to overthrow the father figure — lead towards a schism in the psychoanalytic community.

Since the movie won’t I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest a diagnosis for Sabina’s initial behavior — pica — on the basis of the fact that Knightly chews the scenery compulsively. Every scene she appears in shoots into high melodrama, and it gets tiresome very quickly. While I understand that early psychoanalysis was — in no small part due to Freud’s influence — dominated by talk of sexualities sublimated and overexpressed, much of Knightly’s role seems gratuitous. It seems to send a clear message about what Cronenberg thinks she’s good for.

Fassbender is better, and his interactions with Mortensen are solid. He does what he can to sell Jung as a character, and he does manage to communicate volumes in his facial expressions and body language, but there’s only so much he can do with a thin script. Freud and Jung both come off as archetypes: stiff, stock characters at home on the theatrical stage where they mostly exist to provide voice for the playwright’s Socratic dialogue. But on the screen, they fall sadly flat.

And it’s actually sort of a shame. I’m certain that there’s an interesting story somewhere in the early history of psychoanalysis, but David Cronenberg is far from the director to bring it out.

Worth It: not really.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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