Why do people do what they do? Most of the time, the movies answer this question directly, and the answers are expressed in the simplest terms imaginable. Within the narrow constraints of a three- to five-act dramatic structure, we watch good guys and bad guys with clear, easy-to-digest psychological traits either meet or fail to meet their stated goals. After the movie's over, we say, "Ah, 'twas beauty killed the beast," or "Oh, Rosebud was the name of his sled," or something equally vague and predigested. David Cronenberg's new film A Dangerous Method avoids most of those traditional movie-going pleasures. But its discreetly cosmic speculations about why people do what they do are more rewarding than those of most movies currently playing.
Cronenberg's film, which takes place between 1904 and 1913, is an episodic case history of the intersecting lives of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), his patient and colleague Sabine Spielrein (Keira Knightley), and his mentor and idol Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). I don't know that much about Freud, Jung, or psychoanalysis, but the half-formed concepts upon which these thinkers built their legacies weave in and out of their unpredictable and thoughtful interactions with each other.
As Jung, the bespectacled, be-gloved observer, Michael Fassbender is controlled throughout. He's a real pro, as usual. But as Fassbender showed in Shame, he's more interesting when serving as a catalyst for another actress to cut loose. As Sabina, Knightley's expressionistic struggles with imaginary shock therapy are frequently matched (but never overmastered by) her blunt, intuitive intelligence. Knightley's first appearance in A Dangerous Method is so outré that it gives you the terror-giggles, but she's just as effective once her character starts to control her neuroses. Later in the film, when Sabina and Jung are discussing opera, Jung tells her the name of his favorite Wagner opera. She says, "Yes, that's right" instead of "I think so, too," giving the line a psychologically acute and forceful bit of smarty-pants certainty a lesser actress would have missed.
A Dangerous Method is partially concerned with the forbidden romance between the married Jung and the desirous Spielrein, but there's plenty of room for meditations on social class, family life, religion, and anal fixations. It's a funny movie, too; much of the left-field humor that crops up in previous Cronenberg films comes from Mortensen. His Freud is a genteel, witty, soft-spoken, and awesomely pompous man, a cigar-chomping paranoiac who uses his wicked sense of humor to pat Jung on the head or keep him at bay whenever his hypotheses veer too wildly into uncharted terrain. There's also the dryly funny way Cronenberg bats around Freudian/Jungian archetypes and symbols. Water imagery abounds here, from the dunking of nymphomaniacs to the peaceful lake where Jung mans his sailboat to the vast ocean Freud and Jung cross to reach America.
Most of A Dangerous Method is set up as a series of two-person therapy sessions. First come the initial "talking cure" encounters between Jung and Spielrein. Then, Jung and Freud meet to discuss Spielrein's case — which subliminally sows the seeds of discord between the two men. Still later, Jung treats Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), a former psychologist who sleeps with his patients and urges Jung to "repress nothing." Eventually, Freud and Spielrein meet up and exchange ideas about sex and death. Cronenberg films some of these sessions with both characters in a single shot, which, in keeping with some of the ethical dilemmas to come, suggests professional distance and unnatural proximity.
Working from a play by Christopher Hampton, the dialogue in these therapy sessions is smart and rich, so much so that a line as provocative as Jung's frustrated insistence that "There must be more than one hinge into the universe" is used to punctuate the end of a scene rather than allowed to expand into a movie of its own. As is true with most Cronenberg movies, though, there are whole other worlds of meaning and thought here than initially meets the mind's eye.
A Dangerous Method
Opening Friday, January 27th