When director David Cronenberg introduced A Dangerous Method at the NYFF tonight (accompanied by the wonderful Michael Fassbender), he implied that the film is very different from his earlier work. It is true that this most recent effort does not contain mutant babies or twin gynecologists, and it lacks the visual flair of his usual films. It is, however, clearly a Cronenberg film as far as subject matter goes. Its exploration of the darker side of human nature and the visceral urges we attempt to repress fits in perfectly with his previous work.
The film follows Dr. Carl Jung (Mr. Fassbender) and his relationships with a masochistic patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) and the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). The small cast is uniformly excellent. I have always been anti-Keira Knightley, but her performance here is surprisingly good. Her reed-like, fragile physique and wide eyes make her the perfect image of a broken, battered child who, over the course of the film, gradually composes herself but refuses to soften. The character is all hard edges, demanding and incisive in her ability to read human behavior. Despite the fact that she is the masochist, you get the sense that she is the one who holds the power over Jung, not vice versa.
Jung’s relationship with Freud is similarly fraught. Beginning as a mentoring relationship, it eventually turns into a battle for the future of psychoanalysis. No matter what the viewer may think about Freud and Jung’s theories (I have my problems with them, of course), their discussions over the course of the film are gripping and genuinely thought-provoking. A Dangerous Method is, appropriately, a very talky film, but the content and performances kept me interested. Mr. Fassbender employs his subtle, visceral style to make Jung the slowly-crumbling center of the film. He is on camera almost the entire time, making every small change in his facial expressions and body posture count. Viggo Mortensen, an old favorite of mine who has been doing excellent work with Cronenberg over the last decade, brings a dry wit and quiet consideration to Freud. The character could have so easily become cartoonish, with his perpetual cigar and prosthetic nose, but Mortensen makes him an intriguing and humble intellectual presence.
Alongside the more obvious discussion of human sexuality and psychology, the film also tackles issues of class and religion. Spielrein and Freud are both Jews, while Jung is Protestant. Freud is from a lower class and lives in a cramped apartment with his six children, while Jung’s wife is incredibly wealthy and he lives in a country house with his own sailboat. These differences create a quiet tension that suffuses the characters’ interactions and lends an extra edge to Jung and Freud’s disagreements. The implications of these differences become very clear in the end titles, which I will not spoil for you. Suffice it to say, World War II played its part in these characters’ lives.
A Dangerous Method is thought-provoking and well-executed, if mainstream for a man of Cronenberg’s eccentricity. The dialed-down style makes for a visually bland experience, but in a way it is appropriate for the subject matter. Just like in Jung himself, all the darker elements lie beneath the surface.