David Cronenberg may be most famous for his body horror films, but he’s also interested in the mysteries of the mind. Laurence Boyce reviews his latest film which charts the beginnings of psychoanalysis.
It seems that a law has been passed without my knowledge: the law that Michael Fassbender must be in every film released. Ever. These past few months we’ve had Shame, Jane Eyre, Prometheus and Haywire (and I am sure I have missed a few more as well). Of course, there are many ladies (and I’d wager quite a few men) who can’t enough of ‘The Fass’ (as absolutely no-one is calling him). Well, the DVD and Blu-ray of A Dangerous Method will allow you to see even more of him as he once again plays someone who – to put it delicately – finds time to enjoy some of the more carnal delights in life. But he’s a psychologist so it’s allowed. The film sees him take on the role of Dr. Carl Jung – one of the founders of modern psychoanalytic theory – as it examines the fractured relationship with Sigmund Freud but also looks at a torrid affair he conducted with one of his patients.
In 1904 Russian born Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley, who manages to be extremely engaging even though she seems often to rely on a strange accent and an array of nervous tics) is admitted to a Swiss mental hospital under the care of Jung. The young doctor is a disciple of Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen, who does a good job of giving life to a personality that has been endlessly parodied) who espouses the ‘talking cure’. Eager to try said cure, he chooses Spielrein and in their encounters discover a maelstrom of guilt and sexual repression. Spielrein’s mental health gradually improves – and she plans to enter medicine – whilst Jung becomes close to Freud, whose pupil has helped vindicate his theories. But it becomes clear that Jung also has sexual problems of his own and the married doctor begins a sadomasochistic affair with Spielrein. Soon Jung and Freud’s relationship becomes strained as Jung’s infidelity threatens to undermine the strides they’ve made together in the world of psychoanalysis. And let’s not forget Spielrein who wants to make her own waves in the medical world.
The film is based on the play “The Talking Cure”, and it’s very hard for it to escape from its theatrical origins. There are lots of long and portentous speeches about psychoanalysis and the nature of repression and – while everyone has the acting chops to make sure that these never become truly dull – it still feels like someone is spouting a text book at you. It’s great if you’ve got an essay about the history of psychoanalysis to do in the next week, but it’s unlikely to convert anyone unless they already have an interest in the subject. Yes, there are a couple of torrid sex scenes (which are undeniably kinky, but never feel gratuitous) but, despite this spark of passion, everything feels rather flat. Given that the entire film is meant to revolve around the relationship between Freud and Jung, their difficult relationship comes across as more of a professional disagreement as opposed to a dramatic moment in the history of modern medicine while the entire plot concerning the relationship between Spielrein and Jung seems melodramatic and somewhat overwrought.
The talkative mood of the movie may come as a surprise from those used to director David Cronenberg’s more visceral imaginings such as A History of Violence. Whilst there’s some gorgeous scenery and strong performances, it lacks the urgency and punch of his other works. It’s often fascinating but never completely engaging.
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