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“We have to go into uncharted territory,” the psychiatrist Carl Jung observes in regard to his own pioneering work, and the complex, fascinating topic of Jung’s and Sigmund Freud’s touchy relationship and eventual falling out over a beautiful, sexually hysterical patient has been grippingly explored by director David Cronenberg and writer Christopher Hampton in A Dangerous Method. Precise, lucid and thrillingly disciplined, this story of boundary-testing in the early days of psychoanalysis is brought to vivid life by the outstanding lead performances of Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender. Sure to be well received by festival audiences in Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York (except, perhaps, by orthodox adherents of both physicians), this Sony Classics release should enjoy a vigorous life in specialized release.
Shaking off any dusty remnants of a period biographical piece, the film tackles thorny psycho-sexual issues and matters of professional ethics with a frankness that feels entirely contemporary. Hampton’s script is an outgrowth of his 2003 stage play The Talking Cure, which in turn was based on John Kerr’s esteemed 1994 book A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein.
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Spielrein (Knightley) is a young Russian woman put under the care of Jung (Fassbender) at the Burgholzli mental hospital outside Zurich in 1904. Clearly intelligent, she is also subject to seizures so violent it looks as though she might turn inside out (if this were a different sort of Cronenberg film, she might have actually done so). Already a Freudian even though he has not yet met the master, Jung learns that Spielrein’s sexual fear and sense of humiliation stems from abuse dished out by her father from the time she was four.
Screaming and alarmingly jutting out her jaw in extremis, Knightley starts at a pitch so high as to provoke fear of where she’ll go from there. Fortunately, the direction is down; as her character, under Jung’s fastidious care, gradually gets a grip on her issues and can assess herself with a measure of intellectual composure, the performance modulates into something fully felt and genuinely impressive.
As Jung, Fassbender creates the picture of a disciplined, successful young doctor; fastidiously groomed and sporting perfectly trimmed moustache and wire-rimmed glasses, he’s got a proper, wealthy wife (Sarah Gadon), a child and a few more to come. Physically and tempermentally, he seems so trim and tight that he could almost bust apart; in fact, he must.
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When the two analytical pathfinders eventually meet, they flatter one another and have much to discuss; for his part, Freud (a pleasantly aged Mortensen) is pleased to welcome a Catholic into his circle, given his concern over its perception as a strictly Jewish domain, while even at this early stage, Jung has misgivings at the older man’s tendancy to connect nearly every symptom to sexuality.
Hampton pivots the drama on the character of another early analyst, Otto Gross (fierce Vincent Cassel), a cocaine addict sent by Freud to Jung. An obsessive whose motto is, “Don’t repress anything,” Gross lives up to it by routinely sleeping with his patients and believes Freud (the father of six) is preoccupied by sex because he doesn’t get any.
This sets Jung to agonizing over the question of why people devote so much effort to suppressing their most natural instincts, perhaps, in particular, himself. Goaded by Spielrein to divest her of her virginity, give her the sexual experience she lacks and “be ferocious” in the bargain, Jung finally casts off his habitual restraints and dives into a torrid affair with his patient, which has major implications for all three of the main characters.
Shortly after Spielrein insists that Jung admit everything to Freud, the two men sail to the United States to attend a conference. Gazing at Manhattan as their ship approaches, Freud wonders, “Do you think they know we’re on our way, bringing them the plague?” It’s a great line, and if indeed what they imported was a plague, it was one obliging individuals to look inward, analyze their behavior, ponder the balance of liberation and repression, question their nature rather than blandly accept it. Of all of Cronenberg’s films, A Dangerous Method reminds most of the brilliant Dead Ringers, if only because they both so breathtakingly embrace the dramatic dualities within humans, especially when they brush up against the primal subjects of sex and death.
Despite having to cover stages in the trio’s relationships spread over many years, Hampton’s screenplay utterly coheres and never feels episodic. The dialogue is constantly confronting, articulate and stimulating, the intellectual exchanges piercing at times. Cronenberg’s direction is at one with the writer’s diamond-hard rigor; cinematographer Peter Suschitzky provides visuals of a pristine purity augmented by the immaculate fin de l’epoch settings, while the editing has a bracing sharpness than can only be compared to Kubrick’s.
Along with Knightley’s excellent work as a character with a very long emotional arc indeed, Fassbender brilliantly conveys Jung’s intelligence, urge to propriety and irresistible hunger for shedding light on the mysteries of the human interior. A drier, more contained figure, Freud is brought wonderfully to life by Mortensen in a bit of unexpected casting that proves entirely successful.
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