By Mike Dub
Given cinema’s predisposition for illustrating human psychology, it is somewhat surprising that David Croneneberg, renowned for his use of surreal narrative devices and imagery (he’s the man who had James Woods stick his head into the vagina of a television, after all), takes such an unexceptional stylistic approach in A Dangerous Method. A biopic about Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), his patient/mistress Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), and his “father figure” Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), the film often feels too beholden to the stage play on which it’s based (both the play and film are written by Christopher Hampton, based on the book by John Kerr). Dominated by long scenes of heavy dialogue, mostly therapy sessions and arguments about the nature of psychoanalysis in its early stages, the film is hampered by a love story that can’t rise above the usual trappings of costume melodrama.
It’s not that there is no style in the film. In fact, Cronenberg and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky do everything they can to keep things visually interesting. During the initial therapy sessions between Jung and Spielrein, the filmmakers manufacture super-wide angle shots during analysis, so we can see both the patient in her turmoil and the doctor’s reactions. Those same wide angles dominate much of the film, enfolding us into the horror of Spielrein’s insanity and the torture of the baths used to calm hysteria in the sanitarium. But they also provide stunning views of the Swiss countryside and brilliant details in the offices of the two doctors. The aesthetics, though, are hampered by the drab love story that unfolds between Jung and Spielrein.
Cronenberg just can’t resist molding Speilrein into one of his beloved creepy creatures. With a boney, angular face, bulging eyes, long fingers, and feverish contortions, Knightley, particularly in the opening scenes, gives Spielrein the look of a gargoyle, jutting out her chin and curling her arms back in animalistic disfigurement. Though she suffers from emotional trauma that we would now think would take a lifetime of medication and therapy to overcome, in the hands of the great Dr. Jung, she is cured surprisingly easily in just a couple of years. Afterward, she succeeds in seducing Jung, who has predictably grown weary of his beautiful wife, her extreme wealth, and their children.
Despite the fact that Jung is her doctor, and presumably in the position of authority and, more or less, in control of determining her emotional state, the film sees their affair as her seduction of him. Though their relationship eventually does evolve into a rich, emotional bond, it begins with Spielrein playing the role of femme fatale to Jung’s clumsy, repressed fool. As the affair seems headed toward inevitability, Jung vacillates between conversations with Freud, a model of sexual repression, and Otto Gross (Vincent Cassell), a sex addict who constantly seduces his patients and advocates hedonism. Jung, caught in the middle, embodies the confusion and ignorance of early psychoanalysis.
The conversations he has with fellow analysts are the high points of the film. Cassell plays Otto Gross with as much sly, sexy egotism as you would expect him to bring to the role. Meanwhile, Mortensen, as Freud, absolutely dominates every frame of film he is in. He is totally captivating as the self-inflated, controlling genius who is being passed over by a younger generation of doctors with new, though equally flawed, interpretations of the human mind.
Unfortunately, Knightley gives a performance that may have worked better on the stage than on the screen. Probably overly directed by Cronenberg, she overacts in every scene in the first half of the film, only to become quietly unsure in the second half. The drama, however, lends itself to such a performance. Cronenberg is more than comfortable exploring women as hysterical sex toys, but when the story finally focuses on their love affair, the energy he puts into her character seems to disappear. Knightley is left to stiff-upper-lip costume drama tropes – standing upright as a tear falls from her eye during a moment of heartbreak.
In the end, rather than focusing on the work and ideas of a group of people in the process of creating a science of human emotions, the film turns into a melodrama of repressed love. Most surprising is Cronenberg’s quotidian approach to the subject matter, a missed opportunity to explore the subject matter in a more daring manner. To Cronenberg, a couple of short scenes of spanking and bondage merely suggest the depths Jung and Spielrein explore in their sexuality. From such a prosaic perspective, the film comes dangerously close to inhabiting the repression it is commenting on.