It seems like a match made in heaven, but for a film about famous psychoanalysts who made it their life's work to get to the root of inner turmoil, David Cronenberg's latest offering is remarkably hands-off. One might expect any number of gritty, revealing treatments from a director known for detailing strange passions, but A Dangerous Method is happy to be a typical and superficially entertaining cinematic outline – an introductory course in Jung and Freud told without any real depth, funneled through the ever-disappointing habit of reducing historical figures to little more than romantic fools.
The film explodes into view with madness. Keira Knightley, as Sabina Spielrein, is a disturbed Russian woman being escorted to the mental hospital where Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) works. Her eyes bulge and her chin juts to extraordinary lengths – less like Knightley becoming a woman gone mad and more like she spent hours attempting to mimic Jean Martin Charcot's photographs of hysteria. She is unmistakably intelligent, but her smarts are masked by continual fits that descend from even the slightest provocation.
Using techniques gleaned from Sigmund Freud's work (Viggo Mortensen), Jung tames her mania and turns her into a capable young woman with a similar passion for psychoanalysis. Through their work Jung strikes up a letter friendship with his professional father figure Freud, visiting him and thriving in night-long conversations. They discuss dreams, Freud's obsession with linking everything to sex, and all the other touchstones that made both men indelibly inked on our historical landscape. But these moments are brief, the powerful force of Freud reduced to a supporting player in Jung's development and sexuality, popping up with a clever quip, to signify a notable moment, or to offer up a sexual and professional catalyst. (It's said that Mortensen did this film as a favor to Cronenberg, and zipped through his scenes in a few short days – an awkward disconnect that is felt in the film itself.)
When Freud sends Vincent Cassel's Otto Gross to the hospital, Jung attempts to treat him, only to find much of his world views changed by the troubled analyst's sexually free and bohemian ways. Gross is the antithesis to Jung's early rigidity, but that's as far as we can comprehend this connection. The man did indeed influence Jung greatly, but we never really understand Jung in the film, and in turn, when Gross' ideas about sex tantalize the man, it comes off as adolescent intrigue rather than a profound shift in ideology.
It's male hormones and sexual dysfunction mixed with Hollywood romanticism. Sabina Spielrein was an important part of Jung's life and development, and offered many of her own contributions to the work, but she's reduced almost fully to the role of desperate, carnal seducer – a woman who barely exists outside of her desire to be with Jung. It's as if Cronenberg himself is entering the articulate discussions between Jung and Freud to assert that it all boils down to sex and desire; little else matters.
The film jumps from point to point, person to person, until it is nothing more than a period piece of details without any semblance of the why. With a timeline spanning over a decade, we're offered mostly key points and partial explanation. Jung was a deeply complex man, inspired by Freud's studies and eager to mix in a spiritual side to his work, but these intricacies remain out of focus. We're offered immense detail into an affair only mentioned briefly in the code of their letters and diaries left behind – a sea of sexual release and sadist interludes – and the rest suffers. We're offered only a taste of Jung's interests in the collective unconscious, the strained relationship he had with his wife, and how differing theories led him to have a falling out with Freud, leaving us no closer to the man and mind we still reference today.
The film runs like a theater piece – glimpses trumping in-depth progress – which is no surprise since scribe Christopher Hampton adapted this from his stage play. There's much banter and smart language to coax the flow, but no real work done to truly connect the strands and utilize the medium. Film allows us to dig into the psyche of its players – all too fitting in this case – but Cronenberg is content to keep things simplistic, using the medium to create a beautiful and proper world rather than a visceral one brimming with thought and intellectualism.
Nevertheless, A Dangerous Method manages to be entertaining, mainly due to the charisma of its actors. They deliver Hampton's dialogue with ease, and each offers their own charismatic allure. It's no jump to wish that the film would fall away and you could watch hours of this Jung and Freud discussing the mystery of the mind. And beyond some rather severe bits of mania by Knightley, she excels at presenting a woman with strange mysteries needing to be explored, and also manages to give awkward motivations a sense of humanity.
It's easy to wish this film had never been a play, and had been offered up to Cronenberg in the earlier days -- if, in the days of Naked Lunch, it was he who wanted Jung's story told and that it came to fruition. At some point in time, and with a great willingness to break beyond Hollywood's tiresome bounds for the men of the past, Cronenberg could have cinematically psychoalayzed Jung and gave us a film that lived up to the man's legacy. As it stands, however, A Dangerous Method is an entertaining starting point to a life and friendship, but not a great exploration of it.