Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Review: "A Dangerous Method"
I greatly enjoyed "A Dangerous Method," though I recognize it's not for everyone. It's a fictionalized version of the relationship between three pivotal figures in the development of psychoanalysis: Sigmund Freud, his protégé Carl Jung and Sabina Spielrein, a patient of Jung's who became his lover and then a pioneering psychologist in her own right.
The movie is a mixture of esoteric discussions on the nature of the human mind and depictions of tortured sexuality. One minute, the characters are debating the way their budding discipline is being ostracized by the greater scientific community; the next, they're engaging in kinky sex -- one getting whipped while she watches herself in the mirror, etc.
I found the juxtaposition of intellectual and carnal impulses delightful, but then I'm a very thin slice of the movie-going demographic -- a psychology major my first two years in college, before switching to film and journalism. "A Dangerous Method" is based on the play "The Talking Cure" by Christopher Hampton (who also penned the screenplay).
For me, it was like watching dry history from my old textbooks brought to vivid, neurotic life. A terrific trio of actors illuminate the (supposed) private lives of these stuffy figures, their collaborations and conflicts.
Others, though, may simply dismiss it as high-brow erotica with a brainy bent.
The film is directed by David Cronenberg, and if ever there were a filmmaker made to delve into the psycho-sexual labyrinths of Freud & Co., it's him. Cronenberg ("Dead Ringers") has had a career flitting between mainstream and art films, straight-out horror and deeply disquieting dramas. His movies ("Videodrome") have always had a healthy dose of id-driven fear and loathing slithering under their slick surface.
Michael Fassbender plays Jung, who in 1904 was a 29-year-old doctor practicing the still-revolutionary "psychanalysis" invented by Freud. He is assigned as a patient Sabina, a 19-year-old Russian Jew who's had thoughts of becoming a psychologist herself, but is currently suffering from crippling mental instability.
Knightley, with her willowy beauty and fierce, large eyes, makes quite an impression as Sabina, contorting her body and unhinging her lower jaw in a convincing physical manifestation of her mind's anguish. She looks like her soul is so offended by the stain of her mortal failings, it's trying to shunt off its own fleshy sheath.
Eventually Sabina's psychosis is brought under control using classic Freudian theories about sexual repression, and she becomes Jung's student. Frustrated by trying to understand sex-based impulses when she has no intimate experience herself, she initiates as affair with Jung, who is married to a very wealthy woman (Sarah Gadon).
Things really get crackling when Freud steps into the picture. Played by Viggo Mortensen with magisterial authority, Freud views himself as both a pioneer and victim, attempting to rewrite the laws of science regarding the human mind, yet stubborn in his insistence that a psychologist's role is not to cure his patients but merely help them understand themselves.
"I can assure you than in a hundred years time, our work will still be rejected," he tells Jung at their first meeting. "Columbus, you know, had no idea what country he'd discovered. Like him, I am in the dark. All I know is I've set foot on the shore, and the country exists."
The two men's philosophies clash in time, with Jung feeling constrained by Freud's view of all psychoses as sexual in origin. "There must be more than one hinge to the universe," he tells Sabina.
Again, thrilling stuff from my vantage point, but maybe not yours.
3.5 stars out of four