Dangerous Method: What's Missing from Cronenberg's Melodrama

David Cronenberg’s new psycho-sexual melodrama, “A Dangerous Method,” about the intricate yet troubled relationship between Freud and Jung, is a mixed bag, a well  acted, elegantly mounted feature, which still feels like a play and should be enjoyed the most by people who don’t know much about the origins of psychoanalysis.

Trailer: www.emanuellevy.com/?attachment_id=45177

Betraying its origins, “A Dangerous Method” is adapted to the big screen by Christopher Hampton (Oscar winner for the 1988 “Dangerous Liaisons”) from his own stage play, titled “The Talking Cure.”  

The production, which had a successful run at London’s National Theatre, starred the incomparable Ralph Fiennes as Jung, a character now embodied by the equally fabulous, fast-rising star Michael Fassbender, who should receive his first Best Actor Oscar nomination for an absolutely riveting performance that holds the episodic (often fragmented) picture together.

“A Dangerous Method” world-premieres at the Venice Film Fest, then plays at the Telluride, Toronto, and New York Film Fests, before opening theatrically by Sony Classics in late November, in time for Oscar considerations.

Knowing the Academy voters’ conservative tastes, I don’t think “Dangerous Method” is Oscar-caliber as Best Picture, but its three main actors should receive nominations for their work: Fassbender and Keira Knightley in the lead categories and Viggo Mortensen in the supporting one.

A classy art-house film, “Dangerous Method” is by necessity talky (and sometimes “verbose”), overly simplistic but clear in its arguments and portraitures of two iconic figures of the twentieth century, and accessible and entertaining—considering its risqué and unconventional subject matter.

Here is a movie that should have been deeper, longer (running time is only 99 minutes), more controversial and more provocative, made as it is by the agent provocateur David Cronenberg, who has directed some of the most unsettling, challenging and critically acclaimed films over the past three decades: “The Fly,” “Dead Ringers,” “Crash” and “Naked Lunch.”

Instead, Cronenberg and Hampton have settled for a rather intimate, conventional, easy to digest theatrical melodrama that centers on two lead characters, Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sabina (Keira Knightley), his tormented but brilliant patient and mistress, and three supporting ones: Freud (Viggo Mortensen), Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), and Jung’s wife, Emma (Sarah Gadon). 

Hampton claims to have spent extensive time researching the relationship between Jung, Freud, and Sabina, visiting the Burgholzli hospital in Zurich, where a good part of the tale takes place.

The saga offers a glimpse into the origins of psychoanalysis as a revolutionary theory (and practice), which shattered many prevalent conceptions about sexuality and human behavior and opened up a totally new way of thinking about the libido, culture, and society at large.

The endlessly intriguing tale take place over a decade, from 1904 to 1913, to be precise, set in two major intellectual centers, Vienna and Zurich, offering a chronicle of psychoanalysis as the new, “talking” science.  (Hampton doesn’t acknowledge that the revolutionary method actually began in the 1890s, at about the same time that cinema was born!).

In the first scene, in 1904, the young Carl Jung, only 29, is a psychiatrist beginning what will prove to be a brilliant career.  He lives with his rich, loyal, but unattractive wife Emma (Sarah Gadon), who supports him and his work, at Burgholzli hospital.

Inspired by Sigmund Freud (Mortensen), who’s perceived as a mentor and father figure, Jung puts some of Freud’s theories to experimental treatment on Sabina Spielrein (Knightley), his young (only 18), beautiful, unstable patient, who soon becomes his mistress, too.

A well-educated Russian, who speaks fluent German, Sabina is diagnosed with hysteria, which is manifest in abrupt buts of uncontrollable anger, physical violence, and self-inflicted abuse (she is a seductive masochist, who willingly submits to Jung’s erotic interests and sexual experiments.

The first (and most interesting) reel consists of a series of interactions between Jung and Sabina, who reveals a childhood marred by humiliation and beatings from her authoritarian father.  Following Freud, Jung begins to uncover a disturbing sexual element to Sabina’s dysfunction, reaffirming the master’s theories about the connection between sexuality and emotional disorder.

A tentative friendship between Jung and Freud evolves, initially through correspondence over Sabina’s case.  Upon meeting, the relationship between the two men deepens and Freud perceives Jung as his “natural” intellectual heir.  Things get more complicated, when Jung begins to consult and to listen to Sabina, who reveals a brilliant side to her despite her serious ailment.  With Jung’s encouragement, Sabina pursues an independently successful career as a psychiatrists (specializing in childhood).

The movie then takes a turn to the worst by introducing Otto Gross, a fellow psychiatrist who is treated by Jung and Freud.  Of the film’s five characters, Gross is the most schematic and the most superficial, and the fact that he is played so broadly by Vincent Castle makes things worse. An immoralist and a drug addict, Gross is used as a defiant figure, cleverly and entertainingly arguing against conventional wisdom and bourgeois morality, especially the hypocritical notion of monogamy.  (Neither Jung nor Freud were monogamous to their wives).

While Jung violates the professional code that prevails between doctors and their patients by having a wild sexual affair with Sabina (sort of S&M), he begins to grow apart from Freud, due to their conflicting theories—and ideologies.

Jung protests (mostly in letters) Freud’s rigid adherence to his theories about sex, while his own growing interest in mysticism distances Freud from hi, further threatening their very alliance and personal friendship.  Jung sees their joint travel to the U.S. as a great opportunity, but Freud, the more cynical and realist of the two, has misgivings.

This kind of text seems perfect for the idiosyncratic sensibility and singular vision of Cronenberg, who has dealt with tormented psyches, deviant (abnormal) personalities, and the duality of human nature in numerous films, including “Dead Ringers” and “Crash,” both masterpieces.

And yet something is missing from this production to make it a provocative, unsettling, great art film.  The faults are in the script by Hampton, which, as noted, is too theatrical, and replete of one-liners, witty but overly explicit observations, punch lines that accentuate the entertainment but not depth of the material.  Take, for example, Freud’s observation about their potential contribution and impact to America.

Moreover, too much crucial information is conveyed via letters, which are read via voice-overs, suggesting that Hampton and Cronenberg could not find a more interesting cinematic mode to dramatize the material.  And, so much more could have been made out of the fact that Freud was Jewish and Jung Catholic.

Visually, too, “Dangerous Method” is uneven.  Some scenes play like “Masterpiece Theater,” adopting a stately and decorous strategy that one associates with Merchant-Ivory literary adaptations. Others, such as the wild sex between Jung and Sabina, are too brief and come out of nowhere.

“Dangerous Method” is one of the few films this year that feels too short, too truncated.  The ending is particularly abrupt, a fact made all the more noticeable when the postscript title cards roll down.