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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

TIFF ’11 Review: A Dangerous Method

David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method stars Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud and Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung in a stagey drama about the professional relationship between two men whose ideas shaped the field of psychoanalysis, and their relationship with Sabine Spielrein (Keira Knightley), Jung’s patient-turned-protegee, who went on to become a psychoanalyst in her own right.

A Dangerous Method is a good film, meticulous in everything from the production design to the gorgeous period costumes to the unobtrusive cinematography. If it’s occasionally hindered both by its own restraint, and by sometimes being so methodically staged that you can see where certain bits maybe played out better on stage than they do on screen, powerful lead performances, strong writing, and an interesting take on what could have been a more pedestrian tale ultimately pull the film through and keep it interesting and engaging.

Knightley’s deliberately histrionic performance in the film’s opening bits, when she’s screaming and writhing and jutting out her lower jaw so extensively that it almost looks like a Cronenberg special effects sequence, threw me off a bit at first. But later in the film, when the tables turn and we see Jung’s neuroses deepen while his patient becomes the doctor, this serves as an interesting contrast that augments both Jung’s own ideas on whether the purpose of psychoanalysis is merely to diagnose or also to cure — and Spielrein’s contributions to the field in her own right, particularly the idea of sexual fixations as a battle between ego and id, necessitating the surrender of the individual in order for a new person to be born.

The film’s marketing makes it seem to be more about the battle of wills between the aging Freud and his ambitious pupil Jung (or, perhaps more accurately, it makes it seem more like Fassbender and Mortensen’s film), whereas in actuality much of what happens is driven beneath the surface by Knightley as Spielrein. In other words, what we have here is a film with a female protagonist who, much like the real Spielrein, contributed much in her own right but was upstaged by the force of the personalities of men (and, perhaps, by the fact that she was a pioneering woman working in what was largely a man’s world). The marketing, for me, makes it feel like this is a movie about a fragile woman at the center of a battle between two strong men, and that’s not actually what this film itself is about at all.

I suppose, though, that it draws more interest about the film for men to be buzzing about Keira Knightley being tied up and spanked by Michael Fassbender than to discuss the film from the perspective of its views on sex and fidelity and, in particular, sexual drive as an innate natural force at war with the contrived restraint of religion and social mores. But hey, whatever it takes to get butts into seats and people talking about your film, I guess.

In all fairness, for all that there’s little nudity in the film, the spanking scenes are more erotic than full-on sex scenes in a lot of films — but I don’t expect we’ll hear nearly as much ballyhooing about the idea of a woman who wants to be tied up and beaten as we did about, say, Michelle Williams enjoying oral sex in last year’s Blue Valentine. It’s okay to show a man getting off on spanking a woman with a belt and the woman enjoying that, but not to show her reacting to a man’s tongue probing her nether regions? Not that there’s anything wrong with either sexual act, but so it goes in Hollywood that while I’ve heard a fair amount of buzz over the spanking scenes as titillating, I haven’t seen nearly the swirl of controversy over them as I might expect, having seen the film now. But whatever.

It would have been easier, and much more typical, for this story to unfold with Knightley taking a back seat to Mortensen and Faassbender — particularly given the aforesaid “spanking” scenes that unfold as Jung embarks on an affair with his patient, but both the writing and Knightley’s performance rescue the film from this end. Spielrein is played here as a strong-willed female character who, for all that she’s the most fragile and undone at the beginning of the film, ends up being the strongest and most resilient of the triad, and her growth as a person and a character serves to underscore the ideas around psychoanalytic theory that she proposes (and that, some say, helped form the basis for both Freud’s and Jung’s most well-explored ideas in the field).

Here, though, it’s Spielrein’s acceptance of her own masochistic streak and sexuality, her own battle with ego and id and the death of who she was as she accepts, at least to some extent, that her baser desires don’t render her vile and dirty, that pave the way for her own success both in her field and in her personal life once she moves on from her passion for Jung.

Meanwhile her former doctor, seen here as never fully able to reconcile his own sexual desires with his stronger desire for the financial stability of his marriage to his wealthy wife, seems unable to accept his own battle of id and ego, the societal convention of monogamy with his own experience that his relationship with his wife meets one need, while his affair with Spielrein (and later, with mistress Toni Wolff, not seen in this film) met other needs. This pull-and-tug is most clearly represented in the film by Vincent Cassel as Otto Gross, an early disciple of Freud’s who lived a bohemian lifestyle and advocated the idea of free love; here, he serves as a foil to Jung’s more uptight sexual sensibilities, persuasively arguing that Jung would be a happier man if he stopped fighting his sexual urges and embraced the idea of having sexual relationships with women other than his wife.

A Dangerous Method frequently plays as overly stagey and methodical in many respects, which will no doubt turn some critics cold on the film, but it’s also richly textured and smart, with layers of subtext related to the field in which Jung and Freud pioneered cleverly interwoven into the narrative. The film is bolstered by strong performances by all the lead players — but most especially by Knightley, who’s quite powerful here — and for me, it worked quite well as an exploration of these fascinating ideas and equally fascinating characters.

2 Responses to “TIFF ’11 Review: A Dangerous Method”

  1. FreudPsa says:

    For more on Sabina Spielrein, Freud & Jung, see THE APP on javari http://javari.com/Paranoia.pdf “Psychopathology of Everyday Violence: Death of Cinema” (pbk on Amazon)
    FreudPsa e*Archive
    .http://freudpsa.org
    New York NY

  2. David says:

    Happy to read this review. A Dangerous Method is an easy film to under-estimate because it’s Cronenberg in his restrained, chilly mode, which comes to him with just as much ease as his more violent strain but never gets quite the same critical affection. These movies — M Butterfly, A Dangerous Method, Spider (arguably), etc — have pleasures of their own, deep pleasures, and this movie gave me everything I was hoping to find. In fact, the trailer made it look more “commercial” and I appreciated that the film played against those expectations. In other words, this might not be the Cronenberg that everyone now loves to love, but it’s still a fascinating movie.

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