A Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein
directed by David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg has developed a reputation over many years as a director specializing in the artfully gruesome. From The Brood and Dead Ringers to The Fly and Crash, he has luxuriated in movies about the rending of the flesh. So it comes as something of a surprise that his latest film, A Dangerous Method, about the early friendship between the young Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), is bloodless – in more ways than one. It’s about the rending of the psyche, not the flesh. Screenwriter Christopher Hampton adapted his play The Talking Cure, which is itself adapted from John Kerr’s non-fiction book, A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein. Spielrein, played in the film by Keira Knightley, was a Russian-Jewish woman originally under the care of Jung in 1904 at the Burgholzi mental hospital outside Zurich.
Her seizures and hysteria were severe but Jung, using Freud’s methods, was able to rehabilitate her. Their relationship, however, was not exactly standard: although married, Jung entered into an affair with Spielrein, who wanted to lose her viginity to him. Eventually feeling spurned by Jung, she became a patient of Freud’s, ultimately becoming a prominent psychoanalyst in her own right.
This material is rich but the treatment is stodgy. Too many scenes play out as talkfests in closed quarters and the talk is never quite as scintillating as intended. Knightley’s performance, at least in her hysteria phase, is so overscaled that she seems in danger of turning herself inside out. Fassbender is creditable enough. Mortensen, rarely without a cigar, gives a sly rendition of Freud’s low-key superciliousness. At one point, when the two men are about to arrive by ocean liner in New York to attend a conference, Freud chuckles: “Do you think they know we’re on our way, bringing them the plague?” Dramatizing intellectual ideas is always a challenge, even when, as here, the ideas are so closely aligned with heavy-duty emotion. Perhaps this is why Cronenberg cast Fassbender and Mortensen, two actors who exude physicality. A Dangerous Method is far from a disgrace, but it rarelystirs the passions. It’s a high-toned waxworksdisplay.