The Emotionally Safe 'A Dangerous Method'

David Cronenberg's depiction of a Freud-Jung romantic rivalry is disappointingly listless

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Sony Picture Classic

Movies and psychoanalysis have a long shared history. Influential scholars such as Christian Metz and Laura Mulvey incorporated the Freudian theory to study a wide range of cinema. David Cronenberg, who's made films directly concerned with horrors visited upon the human body (The Fly, The Brood) and perverse sexual impulses (Videodrome, Crash), is one of the modern directors most often examined by those psychoanalytic film theorists.

So Cronenberg is a natural choice to direct A Dangerous Method, a depiction of the illicit, sadomasochistic relationship that allegedly developed between the married Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) during the early days of the psychoanalytic movement at the beginning of the 20th Century.

If that weren't enough, Freud himself—played by frequent Cronenberg collaborator Viggo Mortensen—is a major figure here, and the film chronicles the development and dissolution of the Austrian doctor's close relationship with Jung.

Yet this is an exceedingly limp production, a high-minded enterprise rendered without the intensity of Cronenberg's best work. It's a smart study of the root causes of destructive human behavior, but there's a flat quality to the dark impulses on display. For a movie that's in large part predicated on an explosion of repressed desires, there's surprisingly little stark visceral feeling.

That's because the filmmaker never finds a way to universalize the characters' experiences. He's submerged in the stodgy mores of the period. The bulk of Christopher Hampton's screenplay (adapted from his play The Talking Cure) is centered on long-winded intellectualized conversations in cafés and parlors, and scenes made up of stillborn longing. The dialogue is smart—befitting the articulate, educated protagonists—but stagy, crafted without a strong sense for how people actually talk.

Knightley offers a herculean attempt at cracking through the wooden façade. When we first see Sabina, she's a twitching, throbbing, hysterical wreck, carried thrashing into the Burghölzli Clinic, where Jung treats her. Deeply ashamed and consumed by her taboo feelings, her eyes pop and her face contorts as she screams and cries while expelling her secrets. Throughout the film, after Jung's experimental treatments take hold and Sabina is "cured," the hint of madness persists in Knightley's performance, giving her work a vibrancy that's sorely missing from the rest of the production.

It's a brave performance, one that could have been easily ridiculed (and has been by many critics). It's also the best work of the actress's career.

Fassbender simply can't match her. There are few greater challenges for an actor than commanding the audience's attention during reaction shots, conveying what can't be said through the art of listening well. That's most of what Cronenberg asks his star to do here, with the confused doctor analyzing his own perilous situation and his own feelings as intently as those of his patients.

Yet Fassbender is stuck in that analytic mode, keeping Jung at a considerable remove from the audience's sympathies. As the character experiences major turmoil, his meticulous demeanor remains intact. His well-coiffed hair is hardly ruffled and his proper attire is kept in place. The actor conveys Jung's deep guilt and overarching sense of despair, but the character seems so polished, so impeccably restrained, that you don't believe him capable of the passionate, self-destructive relationship with Knightley's Spielrein that puts his marriage and his career at risk. There's some obvious transference going on, to adopt a favored Freudian term, but it just doesn't resonate. (Fassbender communicates a much stronger interior life as the similarly tormented protagonist of Steve McQueen's much more risqué Shame, out in limited release next week).

Peter Suschitzky's cinematography is classically composed, predicated on pristine wide shots and an overarching realist costume drama sensibility that further detracts from the churning, powerful emotions informing the narrative. It's an ideal aesthetic for a movie aiming to resurrect a long-extinct milieu that hosted charged debates centered on the scope and meaning of the unconscious. It's far less ideal for a film about the messiest, most complicated matters of the human heart.