David Cronenberg’s work is better known for exploding, rather than talking, heads, so his new film, A Dangerous Method, might be hard for some of his fans to take. However, it still remains the work of a great director working with a great script and is Cronenberg’s best film since Crash.
The film largely follows Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) from the years 1902 to 1913, a psychologist who is trying out the ‘talking cure’ invented by Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). His most responsive patient is Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), an intelligent young woman who wants to study to be a psychiatrist, but who suffers from hysteria. After making some progress, Jung consults Freud about the case and a rewarding friendship develops in which Jung joins Freud as the two major figureheads of psychoanalysis. However, Freud is rather conservative about the direction that their research should take, fearful of giving his enemies any ammunition with which to attack their research. Angered at Freud’s caution, Jung starts to develop a new methodology for psychoanalysis, which might destroy both the movement and his friendship with Freud.
An interest in psychology and the early days of psychoanalysis might help, as A Dangerous Method is a very wordy film with a brilliantly literate script from Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons), which analyses the philosophical and political contexts of psychoanalysis. The key scenes in the film, as well as the most fascinating, are merely conversations between Freud and Jung about the minutiae and the direction of their research. Far from dramatic or rhetorical, these scenes are primarily educational, being a biopic of the early days of psychoanalysis.
However, the film is far from a lecture and is rewarding in other ways. The film begins with an expertly filmed carriage race to a psychiatric ward as Spielrein suffers a bout of hysteria. Though her star persona is initially off-putting (just as Daniel Radcliffe’s was in The Woman in Black), Keira Knightley turns in a convincing and unsettling performance as a young hysteric. Her chin protrudes to an amazing degree, becoming a physical manifestation of a psychological activity, one of Cronenberg’s trademarks. In all, though it is a role that Hampton and Cronenberg seem to lose track of during the film’s middle section, Knightley’s performance is surprisingly good and a bit of a risk. Alongside Knightley, Fassbender and Mortensen give fine performances, managing to convey stuffy and bickering psychologists with a huge amount of integrity and a nicely judged amount of humour. Fassbender’s Jung never descends into silliness, even though it is a role that seemed destined to do just that. Even when he reveals an interest in telepathy and soothsaying, it is presented as a wish to create a scientific basis to mysticism, rather than a belief in superstition. Vincent Cassel, in a small role as hedonist Otto Gross, is very good too.
The film is also brilliantly directed, with Cronenberg fully aware of when to move the camera and when to keep still and let the actors do the work. He shows a certain subtlety that is not often accredited to the director of Shivers, Rabid and The Brood. A Dangerous Method might even be his most successful break from the body horror subgenre that he helped create – especially since Spider was a film that didn’t seem to know where it wanted to go. Seemingly incidental moments play like some of his best work, such as when he lingers on a shot of a bay window to indicate Jung’s desire for the person inside without the grounding of a shot of Jung looking at it. Or when Jung describes a dream to Freud during a voyage to the USA and Cronenberg keeps the camera distant and the setting just fantastical enough to make us wonder if we are watching Jung describe the dream or the dream itself. Both moments seem to have grounding in psychoanalysis itself. Cronenberg knows when you direct like a dramatist and when to direct like an intellectual, a differentiation that many arthouse directors seem to be unable to make.
However, despite Cronenberg, Fassbender, Mortensen and, yes, even Knightley, the film’s true calling card is Hampton’s writing, which manages to make a wordy script endlessly fascinating. It is probably as much Hampton’s skill as Cronenberg’s that A Dangerous Method does not feel the slightest bit claustrophobic. Despite a few story hiccups in the mid-section and an awkward ending where Jung seems to predict World War I, A Dangerous Method manages to be a film that is both intellectually and emotionally stimulating.