Film Review: 'Dangerous' brings insight to Freud, Jung

Patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) and therapist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) begin an inevitable affair in David Cronenberg's historical drama 'A Dangerous Method.' Viggo Mortensen also stars as Sigmund Freud.

Liam Daniel/Sony Pictures Classics

Patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) and therapist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) begin an inevitable affair in David Cronenberg's historical drama "A Dangerous Method." Viggo Mortensen also stars as Sigmund Freud.

Once lauded as the master of "gynecological horror," David Cronenberg applies his directorial speculum to the human cranium in "A Dangerous Method," a confident and fascinating film about the relationship between big brains Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and their shared patient, Sabina Spielrein, who followed her mentors to become a noted psychoanalyst in her own right.

Always cerebral, even when dealing with sexually transmitted parasites ("Shivers") or human-insect metamorphosis ("The Fly"), the mature Cronenberg has been attracted during the past couple of decades to literary adaptations ("Naked Lunch," "Crash") and to stories with genre elements ("A History of Violence," "Eastern Promises") that defy traditional categorization

Seduced by the challenge of an impossible case, the driven Dr. Jung takes on the unbalanced yet beautiful Sabina Spielrein as his patient, wielding the ...

Rating: R for sexual content and brief language

Length: 99 minutes

Released: November 23, 2011 NY/LA

Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Keira Knightley, Michael Fassbender, Vincent Cassel, Sarah Gadon

Director: David Cronenberg

Writer: Christopher Hampton

More info and showtimes »

and demand to be identified primarily as "a David Cronenberg film."

At the same time, he has become a nonpareil filmmaker, and his movies offer a clinic in simple, direct, purposeful visual storytelling. A drama that looks at the birth of the "talking cure" that Freud would dub "psychoanalysis," "A Dangerous Method" is naturally very wordy, yet Cronenberg's compositions, his camera placement and his decisions on when to cut are impeccable, even when the "action" of a scene is nothing but the inaction of seated speech.

Scripted by Christopher Hampton from his own play, "A Dangerous Method" opens with its wildest scene, a Hammer horror-worthy shot of a frantic horse-drawn carriage delivering a frenzied madwoman to a Zurich clinic in 1904. The woman is Sabina (Keira Knightley), a hysterical virgin and educated Russian Jew with an obsession with humiliation. The doctor who decides to treat her is Carl Jung (the suddenly ubiquitous Michael Fassbender), a wealthy and reserved Protestant and a devotee of the "radical therapeutic ideas" developed in Vienna by Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen).

Knightley has been almost entirely overlooked during the movie awards season, possibly because the frightening and deforming intensity of her performance strikes some viewers as cartoonish. She's like a whipped dog expecting a blow from an angry master, twisting her limbs in spastic contortions and jutting her toothy jaw forward so she resembles an electroshocked piranha.

In fact, she's remarkable; no doubt her crazed physicality is intended to offer a necessary contrast to the almost stonelike cool of the team of Jung and Freud, whose exertions are almost entirely mental -- at least until Jung begins an inevitable affair with Sabina, who is "acutely aware" that her lack of sexual experience may thwart her ability to be a perceptive psychiatrist.

Fassbender, too, is superb. The actor is more raw and displays greater range in "Shame," a movie obsessed with sex on a more visceral level, but his literally buttoned-down performance here is more interesting because Jung is presented as a flesh-and-blood man of ideas and not as a symbol of suffering and mystery. Fassbender's Jung is likable, conflicted and troubled, but overall a good and decent man; meanwhile, the sex addict role in "A Dangerous Method" goes to Vincent Cassel as Otto Gross, Freud's "free love"-advocating disciple.

Hampton's play was inspired by John Kerr's 1993 nonfiction book, "A Most Dangerous Method: the Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein," and the film seems driven more by an interest in history and ideas than by conventional plot. The story is structured as a series of incidents and events -- the stepping stones that lead to the eventual break between the class-conscious Freud, who believes every mental disorder has a sexual cause, and the more mystical Jung, who developed the concepts of the psychological archetype and the collective unconscious.

The movie presents both men as heroic explorers of what Jung calls "uncharted territory," but it also identifies the doctors as unheeded prophets and appalled midwives to a ghastly future (babies are a major concern here). The men are heralds of a savage century in which unconscious urges find such destructive expression that even kids who've barely heard of Freud can identify bombs and missiles as phallic symbols.

"A Dangerous Method" is at the Malco Studio on the Square, the CinePlanet 16 and the Hollywood 20 Cinema.

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