After A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007), it makes sense that David Cronenberg would be attracted to the mechanics of psychoanalysis. Those movies aren’t squishy like The Fly or Scanners; instead, they embed the director’s signature perversities into thrillers that seem almost straightforward, their thematic anxieties pulsing just below the surface.
A Dangerous Method looks at the early days of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) as he attempts to follow in the analytical footsteps of Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) while treating and then mentoring Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). You might expect Cronenberg to draw this story out into an explicit sort of madness, but instead he strips it down, like an erotic thriller rendered with clinical minimalism, a chamber piece with antsy currents.
Those currents run most deeply in Jung, who is fascinated by Freud’s methods but wants to move beyond identifying patients’ psychological problems and towards solving them. Sabina arrives at his mental hospital as a challenge: she kicks and screams and twitches, so consumed with shame and anger that she has trouble finishing her sentences when the topic of her father comes up. While Knightley’s performances are usually mannered, this one puts that tendency to disturbing use, rather than her usual eye-crinkling cuteness.
The mild-mannered Jung uncovers Sabina’s masochistic side, and encourages her to pursue her own interest in psychoanalysis as a career. Though their relationship has a sexual charge—and leads to sadomasochistic sessions that burden the married Jung—most of it is rendered through a series of conversations. This emphasis on language as a means to probing secrets and desires shapes the rest of the movie, as doctors and patients or employers and subordinates study, judge, and reject one another in different combinations: Jung and Sabina analyze each other; Jung consults with Freud; Jung tries to end his unusual relationship with Sabina through Freud; and so on. When Jung begins treating Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel) as Freud’s behest, their sessions (in his office, in the institution’s yard) indicate the power of words to convey and also construct ideas. Gross’ manipulative self-analysis leads his doctor to question his own assumptions and even to explore his own sexual appetites.
During these various therapy sessions (some conducted in the traditional style, with patients facing away from their interlocutors), Cronenberg fixes his camera on the actors’ faces, using shallow focus to blur the edges of their heads, a subtle trick hinting at the unstable, unfinished psyches at play. Other images that precisely frame individuals in relation to each other suggest reserves of passion and repression, unseen but still pervasive. There is spanking and eventually there is sex, too—Freud, who rankles Jung by seeing everything in terms of sexual development, refers to sleeping with patients as an “occupational hazard”—but tense, inspective talk dominates the movie.
This dynamic is adapted from Christopher Hampton’s play (which he adapted here), in which certain key events remain offscreen: Jung and Freud travel to America together, but we only see a few scenes from the trip, as subtly fraught as a tense married couple’s disappointing vacation. Later, Sabina travels to Vienna to visit with Freud, but we see only enough of their interaction to suggest she has learned well how to manage interactions. The film also cuts ahead in time more than once, leaving out major events (like changes in station or children’s births), such that shifting relationships are conveyed in aging makeup or actors’ demeanors.
While A Dangerous Method doesn’t have jokes, per se, it does teeter on the edge of dry comedy, as when Cronenberg lingers on shots of Jung’s heaping plates of food (he eats as if breaking a long fast) or follows Gross around Jung’s office, as he furtively pockets or destroys his doctor’s property. Cronenberg and Hampton also wring some awkward laughs from the tweedy pettiness of academia; Jung and Freud rarely, if ever, raise their voices at each other, but they do write a number of strongly worded letters.
This half-serious, half-deadpan approach may strike some audiences as peculiar, but it’s the peculiarity that makes Cronenberg’s film so refreshing, even when it turns repetitive and elliptical. As A Dangerous Method is small and contained, without a lot of story beyond pitting Freud’s sex-based scrutiny of psychological problems against Jung’s sometimes amusingly new-agey-sounding concept of reinvention—and, running parallel, the battle of Sabina’s increasingly resolute will against Jung’s. Working just under the surface, Cronenberg exposes the tiny, weird, intensely private moments that brought such enormous changes to comprehensions of mental health, as medical focus and cultural construction.