Title: A Dangerous Method
Genre: Biography, Drama, Romance
Play time: 1h 39min
Director: David Cronenberg
Screenwriters: Christopher Hampton
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen
Screened at the 2011 Telluride Film Festival.
I distinctly recall that at one point the prospect of a David Cronenberg movie about Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung sounded like a great idea, but we should have known better. Cronenberg’s films already traffic in sexual undercurrents and metaphors, the kind of stuff ripe for Jungian analysis if you’re into that sort of thing. It stands to reason that an attempt to actually engage in that analysis on the screen would be a crushing bore.
A Dangerous Method is dead on arrival. Granted, it is saddled with the disadvantage that psychoanalysis is stupid and wrong. But even if you’re interested in the subject matter, the movie finds Cronenberg working in startlingly generic period piece mode, without a hint of the dread and weird fascination that usually permeates even his weaker films. There is precisely one Cronenberg-ian moment here — an early scene in which Sabine (Keira Knightley), Jung’s first patient for his “talking cure” who later became his lover and colleague, plays with her food, covering her hands in goop.
The film chronicles, in parallel, Jung’s relationships with Sabine and Freud, played by an admirably subdued Viggo Mortensen. (Michael Fassbender plays Jung, oddly channeling Ewan McGregor.) They have long discussions and pretty much hit most of the psychoanalysis high points — anal fixations, dream interpretations, phallic metaphors, repressed childhood memories, etc. (Freud to Jung, discussing the latter’s dream, deadpan: “This log. I think perhaps you should consider the possibility that it represents the penis.”) The ostensible drama comes from Jung’s burgeoning intellectual rivalry with Freud (Freud thinks everything always circles back to sex; Jung isn’t so sure), and his affair with Sabine, though the latter seems to be but a minor annoyance to his wife (Sarah Gadon). Vincent Cassel shows up as the uninhibited, epicurean Otto Gross, who scoffs at Jung’s attempts at monogamy and advises him to “never regress anything.” These issues are hashed out through letter-writing campaigns and analysis sessions.
So, yes: this is a therapy movie, the kind where the characters turn subtext into text by vocalizing their mental states to each other. As if that weren’t bad enough, it’s a Freudian therapy movie, which means that the therapy in question is an asinine hunt for dream metaphors and childhood root causes, sometimes reminiscent of Nicolas Cage riffing on arcane clues in National Treasure. To make things still worse, all of this is presented in a staid costume drama torpor, without a hint of style, life or genuine feeling. The academic conflict between Jung and Freud is presented with all the fervor of a textbook recitation. How could Cronenberg, whose career has so passionately embraced the weird and extreme, have come out with something so neutered and ordinary and boring?
Cronenberg’s inexplicable stylistic hibernation aside, the problem here is that the film by design renders literal what should be figurative. Characters aren’t supposed to psychoanalyze each other on screen with a straight face; if anyone is going to be analyzing, it should be us. I might have expected any number of things from A Dangerous Method, but not this tedious exercise in spoon-feeding.
— Eugene Novikov