[This is a reprint of my review from the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. A Dangerous Method opens tomorrow in limited release.]
Psychoanalysis is a funny profession. Its doctors aren’t like cardiologists or gastroenterologists. Your heart is your heart, your intestines are your intestines, and so forth. Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, attempt to impose rationality on the irrationality of emotions. It works from a vague definition of “normal” and then tries to determine why a behavior deviates from that unspecified norm. Sigmund Freud believed it was not the place of psychoanalysts to simply point out the abnormality, while his protégé Carl Jung thought that the practice was worthless if it couldn’t be advanced to help those in need. These two figures illustrate the clash of the ego, id, and super-ego in David Cronenberg‘s A Dangerous Method, a film which brilliantly explores Freudian concepts and how we wish to indulge our base emotions but instead build a wall of reason and science to imprison our desires. However, in attempting to convey this blockade, A Dangerous Method inadvertently cuts off its emotional connection to the audience.
The film opens in Switzerland in 1904 where Russian Jew Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) arrives at a mental institution. It’s a good place for her to be since she’s literally stark raving mad. Spielrein is placed under the care of Dr. Jung (Michael Fassbender), and he believes she’s the perfect patient for a new field of medicine, psychoanalysis or “The Talking Cure”. Dr. Freud (Viggo Mortensen) developed the technique of asking questions and letting the patient work through his or her emotion, but Jung wants to implement the new method and research its effects. Through her conversations with Jung, Spielrein begins to understand her S&M fetish, returns to sanity, and begins her own research in the field of psychology. Meanwhile, Jung begins a friendship with Freud but Jung’s clandestine sexual relationship with Spielrein not only serves to highlight the differences between the doctors’ personalities and philosophies, but foreshadows what will cause them to break apart.
From the outset, we see that science is personal for Jung. In an early scene, he does a polygraph test on his wife, not because he doesn’t trust her, but because he can’t stay emotionally distant from his research. The polygraph test hints how Jung will intimately pursue his “research” when he takes Spielrein as his mistress. Jung keeps their relationship secret and denies the rumors of it, but his super-ego keeps clawing at the door of his mind and he is torn between indulging his desires—a belief espoused by doctor/patient/total-id Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel)—and remaining faithful to his wife and upholding his rising career.
For his part, Freud understands the fragility of his new medical discipline and he keeps his emotional distance from almost everyone even though his catch-all answer to psychosis (it’s sexual) betrays his own repression. Freud believes he has a close friendship with Jung but it steadily becomes clear that Freud will not relinquish the direction of his discipline even though he declares Jung as his heir-apparent. These two men can never be colleagues nor can they truly disconnect. They are opposed yet work in concert and Cronenberg brilliantly crafts the ego/id/super-ego metaphor without even mentioning the concept to the audience.
A Dangerous Method is a wickedly smart movie. Cronenberg challenges his audience at every turn forcing us to listen to the double-meaning of every utterance and how every “scientific” claim made by Jung, Freud, Gross, and Spielrein belies a personal and emotional conviction. The characters believe they can impose rationality on the irrational when in fact it’s the other way around. Psychoanalysis is supposed to reveal the psyche but its language instead obfuscates the emotions the profession hopes to explore.
Unfortunately, A Dangerous Method has the same problem. Cronenberg cleverly demonstrates how psychobabble can disconnect individuals from their emotions and from each other, but he does it too well. The film relies on its actors to convey the emotion but the wall is simply too high. Mortensen is terrific as Freud and he lends the film its dry humor along with its few shades of sadness as the Austrian doctor goes from hoping his work will be carried on by his protégé to fearing how it will be perverted by Jung’s emotions and willingness to consider fringe-science like telepathy and mysticism. Similarly, Fassbender does a fantastic job presenting the thematic conflict embodied in Jung’s internal conflict of super-ego and id.
Knightley’s performance takes some getting used to. Because Spielrein opens the film and the character is screeching, laughing manically, and all around looney-tunes, Knightley has to go big and since the madness is textbook, it looks like an unimaginative performance. As she juts out her lower jaw and throws on a Russian accent, the audience knows that she is “Acting” in all capital letters. But once the character calms down and begins to explore her sexuality, her feelings for Jung, and her personal aspirations, then Knightley can provide a respectable performance and she holds the screen just as easily as Mortensen and Fassbender.
And yet these tremendous actors can’t break through the dialogue and their characters constantly psychoanalyzing each other. The film can’t rouse any emotions because it purposefully throws up so many barriers to the characters addressing their own emotions. When Spierlein breaks down and confesses how she became sexually excited when her father beat her, it’s within the sterile confines of Jung’s psychoanalysis. She’s talking through her pain but since we’re seeing her through Jung’s perspective and Jung is trying to keep his emotional distance, we’re never let in. We’re encouraged to look, but we’re not allowed to touch. Freud would approve.