The sex lives and interactions of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) seems a ripe topic for David Cronenberg. It sets expectations that A Dangerous Method cannot meet. His film – adapted from the play by Christopher Hampton – rarely goes for some of the beautiful discomfort that one would expect from the old genre master. Instead you got a modestly engaging piece about how both lives were changed by the work of Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a patient turned psychologist and not-so-secret lover of Jung.

The Players:

The Plot:

The young Carl Jung (Fassbender) is given the troubled patient Sabina Spielrein (Knightley), who’s considered so far out there that few have hope she can recover. He works with her using methods practiced by Sigmund Freud (Mortensen), and his use allows the two to begin to communicate. Spielrein is twisted up in emotional and physical knots, but Jung finally gets her to calm down – though much of her problems are tied into her sex drive, which is set off by violence. She is cured, though, and studies psychology with Jung’s encouragement. Freud and Jung have a friendship, but Freud treats Jung as a favorite pupil, and there is tension between the two because they hold different beliefs about religion and the fantastic. Sabina settles into psychology, but there is an attraction between the two and Jung takes her on as a lover, especially after talking with Otto Gross (Cassel) – a psychologist turned patient who feels that he should satisfy any base desire.

The Good

  • That Cast: Though Knightley’s twisted body behavior in the first act is going to be a dividing line for some (I had no problem with it), you’ve got four of the best actors of their day involved in great discussions that are often fights masqueraded by pleasantries. Every time Mortensen and Fassbender share a frame, there’s an implicit danger to their conversations – both parties don’t want to make the wrong move until the cards eventually collapse, and their egos and beliefs that make every scene between them fascinating. Both know they can decode much of what is parsed. Vincent Cassel also gets to show up for a couple scenes and an embody an Dionysian approach to life.
  • Cronenberg: He is both the best and worst thing about the film. If one looks at him as the adapter, he makes the play reasonably cinematic, and the performances engrossing  and emotionally naked. When things get kinky and weird he shows it with maximum impact in a few frames. He’s great at showing how Knightley’s character reacts to having sex with Jung, and how she is looking at herself in a mirror while it happens, or how a corset reveals part of her in a way that is evident she’s using to control the situation. Though the “filmed play” critique has already been leveled at the movie (it played festivals), that underrates what Cronenberg does.

The Bad:

  • Cronenberg: But as an Auteur piece, this is one in a run of pictures that seem meant to class the director up. Working with Hampton’s material, you wish Cronenberg would rip it up and rewrite it himself to get at what interests him more. There’s good work here, it’s not a bad movie by any stretch. A Dangerous Method is merely a modest film that has moments but little force. Perhaps sticking too closely to the play or the real events, it becomes a film of moments with a number of great ones. But the whole never congeals into a great work. And what’s frustrating is that you can see how close it is to something great. It feels like it was meant for the art house, for critical respect. Or perhaps that’s the aftertaste of a minor work.

Overall:

David Cronenberg is a truly great director, but this is a minor work that offers many pleasures that come with having such talented people behind and in front of the camera.

Rating: 7/10

A Dangerous Method opens in limited release November 23.

Stills:

Trailer: