Psychology and cinema have a long history together with the former often shaping the latter into delivering movies of great caliber. Last year’s “Black Swan” was a manifestation of that: a psychological thriller examining the darkness of human nature. In A Dangerous Method, psychology is literally in center-stage as this is a movie about how two of psychology’s most influential scholars came to their theories: Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud.
David Cronenberg’s new cinematic feature opens with an exquisitely chilling scene. Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) is in the back of car shouting her lungs out as two men barely restrain her as they take her to a mental institution to be examined by Dr. Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), who’s attempting Sigmund Freud’s (Viggo Mortensen) new method of treatment, called psychoanalysis. Spielrein is an unhinged Russian aristocrat who wants to become a doctor while Jung is eager to prove himself to his colleagues and the community and would, therefore, make Spielrein his main case. To his patients, Jung is superior. To his colleagues, he is always inferior. And it’s from there that his need to prove himself arises. Soon enough, Spielrein is “cured” but instead of letting her have a clean break with her sexual fantasies, Jung immerses himself in them, whipping her before having sex with her, putting a strain in his marriage where the sex is “tender” to which Spielrein offers that she “can be ferocious.” Meanwhile, Jung debates with Freud in numerous correspondances on how to improve psychoanalysis, featuring the dissolution of the relationship between them.
A Dangerous Method boasts what I believe is a brilliant and highly interesting trailer. But simply put, don’t let the trailer fool you into thinking this is more than a historical and biographical movie. It’s a history book on screen, which makes it boring, redundant and, eventually, pointless. The production feels disconnected. The movie’s pace is slow and when it picks up it’s only for a few minutes.
For a movie about emotions and feelings, the movie also doesn’t offer much in that department. Apart from a great performance by Keira Knightley who outshines both male leads, the movie is stark, grim and too safe. For a movie about psychoanalysis and the repressed sexual urges of Man, there’s simply too little of that… there’s too little visceral emotions in there for it to have any credibility outside the historical realms it’s featuring.
Let’s talk about Knightley. I mentioned the opening scene for a reason. The second half of that scene features Knightley blowing you away with her twitching, writhing, screaming, laughing…. She’s hysterical in front of your eyes and she does such a good job at it that it’s hard to think A Dangerous Method won’t be a great movie, even with her extending her jaw to cringe-inducing measures as if trying to pull that coveted golden Oscar statue towards her. But then as Jung begins his movie-long analytical character, coupled with an even more analytical approach from Freud, whatever emotion brought to table by Knightley is diluted beyond recognition to form an emotionally disembodied movie about emotions. Through the rest of the movie, even as she’s cured, Knightley retains an element of craziness to her character that keeps you on guard whenever she’s on screen. You get to certain points where you wish the Jung-Freud sequences had been rewritten to feature her: less historical accuracy, more in-depth approach, more emotions, more crazy.
As mentioned earlier, Fassbender and Mortensen’s characters are simply a psychology book in reading. Some of their script can be found in a psychology book somewhere even verbatim, perhaps. But both actors do their best with the characters they were given. Taken in absolute value, the performances are good enough to pull this movie as it is. But when you expect much more from a movie dealing with Freud, Jung and psychoanalysis, you want the script itself to be more out of the box and their performances to be crazier.
It might be that I had too high expectations but A Dangerous Method seriously underwhelmed and disappointed me. Not only does this movie have no award-season chances (or limited chances at that) but it poses the question of how many times could the Freud-theme be handled in cinema before finally getting it right? You’d think a director like David Cronenberg would be good enough to bring the crazy of his previous movies to a movie about crazy. But it looks like it’s not the case. And ultimately, there’s nothing dangerous about A Dangerous Method except the one word in its title.