Toronto International Film Festival 2011: ‘A Dangerous Method’


Director: David Cronenberg

Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, Sarah Gadon, Vincent Cassel

Country: Germany / Canada

David Cronenberg’s latest is a chilly study of the creative and competitive triangle between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), and the lesser-known Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly) in the early years of the 20th century. Christopher Hampton’s cunningly constructed script — he is the man behind Dangerous Liaisons and Atonement) paints the early history of psychoanalysis as a precarious moment, a time when brave innovators faced the collective disapproval of their peers for their forays to the edges of science. In many ways, this is a film about acceptance, about fitting in, and about the ways one muct repress one’s desires in order to do so.

In one telling scene Freud and Jung debate how best to pronounce the term “psychoanalysis”, and the decision is taken based on which would sound better to the public. A lot of this trepidation arises from the centrality of sex to Freud’s understanding of neuroses, and his understanding that this might rankle the puritans. In response, Freud is here simultaneously confident of his (most dangerous) method and anxious about the public’s willingness to accept it (much less embrace it). He even refers to it as “the plague” at one point. Cleverly invoking Freud’s Jewishness and class status (and contrasting it with the wealthy Protestant Jung), we are offered perhaps a bit of insight into Freud’s final conservatism when compared to Jung’s eventual turn to mysticism. At the centre of all of this is Knightley’s Sabina, a truly unsung heroine of psychoanalysis, and a kind of bridge between Freud and Jung’s respective methods. The film’s narrative arc is all hers, as she begins the movie completely tangled up in the throes of an agonizing psychosis before she is eventually cured (by Jung, using Freud’s method) and winds up a Freudian psychoanalyst herself. Along the way, she has a brief but torrid affair with Jung which causes him to (perhaps) re-evaluate his own repressed sexuality.

Possibly most important of all in this game of identity and discovery is Vincent Cassel’s wonderful turn as Otto Gross, another psychoanalyst who found himself a patient of Jung. Obsessed by sex, and a believer in gratification and pleasure above all else, Gross is the only character here who feels completely free — he is all id, let’s say — but he is just as unable to operate in the mainstream as was Sabina in her period of superego masochism. I could go on. This is a film that positively demands that you go on. It is whipsmart, carefully constructed, and entrancing. It is also very talky, and often a bit too clever for its own good. Audiences may admire Knightley’s resoundingly over-the-top performance (I mean this in a good way, though many will disagree), but will likely find the coldness of the proceedings a bit underwhelming. Still, it is quite a feat to have made such a stimulating film about repression.