(2011)3.5Perry SeibertDavid Cronenberg making a film about the birth of diagnosing psychosexual dysfunction is as good a pairing of director and subject as anyone could possibly conceive. Unexpectedly, the Canadian auteur's A Dangerous Method deals with the uneasy friendship between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) in purely psychological terms, mostly downplaying the physical expressions of their particular hang-ups.
The movie opens with Jung meeting a new patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), who seeks help for her seemingly uncontrollable need to have sex when she's humiliated. Jung has read about groundbreaking work being done by Sigmund Freud, and he decides Spielrein would be the ideal patient for him to first attempt to use Freud's new "talking" cure. Their sessions turn out to be fruitful for Spielrein and lead Jung to contact Freud, and soon the men develop a friendly, collegial relationship. However, their mutual admiration is broken when Jung becomes attracted to Spielrein and crosses an ethical line that Freud finds unacceptable. Complicating matters further, Spielrein becomes a savvy therapist in her own right.
The performances are uniformly strong. Fassbender is thoroughly engaging and sympathetic as Jung; it's hard to share Freud's growing disgust with his protégé, because Fassbender gives Jung such a strong desire to do the right thing. He wants to help people, and his few personal dalliances feel like the actions of a man who understands he needs to indulge certain peccadilloes in order to help others: Why not spank a willing masochist if it'll help her and you get on with the job at hand? Mortensen delivers yet again for Cronenberg and makes Freud a towering figure, imposing and always confident that he's better than Jung -- a belief that's bitterly ironic when, just before the closing credits roll, we find out where these two men ended up.
The duo are ably supported by Knightley, who is better once she can shed the facial tics her character suffers from in the movie's opening scenes, and the always earthy Vincent Cassel as Otto, an unapologetic hedonist whom Freud asks Jung to treat.
Kinky sex and mental instability have been recurring themes for Cronenberg for years, but the sex in his films is very rarely sensual and always an expression of his characters' darkest impulses. Think back to the twin gynecologists in Dead Ringers or James Spader's role in Cronenberg's adaptation of the novel Crash for just two examples. A Dangerous Method puts a unique spin on this by featuring characters who are fully aware of why they have the kinks they do. This self-knowledge doesn't stop them from acting on their impulses, but it does make them feel an acute guilt that's usually absent from Cronenberg's movies.
It's such a mature, talky film that people might feel let down that Cronenberg didn't run with the more outlandish aspects of this true story, but what makes A Dangerous Method unique among his movies is its examination of self-examination. Jung isn't overcome with remorse for his actions; he understands that his kinks are a part of him, albeit a part that he knows must be controlled though certainly not eliminated. This cerebral approach may leave some viewers cold, since for all of the amazing events that transpire during the course of the film, there really isn't much of a character arc for Jung -- he gets smarter, but he doesn't change. But for those who appreciate seeing Cronenberg continue to evolve, to turn what is usually the subtext of his films into the actual text, A Dangerous Method becomes a singular entry in the master's remarkable career.