I caught a screening of David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method last night at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. Going in, I tried not to have high expectations. Although I’ve read many mixed/partial reviews to the film; surprisingly, it currently holds an 81% rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Tambay posted a review of the film earlier this month; you can find it HERE.
The film is based on the real life chronicles of three renowned revolutionaries of psychoanalysis: Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Sabina Spielrein, and their intricate triangle relationship formed while studying and researching the practice.
The film’s opening shows a young, hysterical and mentally ill Sabina Spielrein, played by Keira Knightley, as she’s coming into the Swiss institute where Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) works. Sabina begins to see Jung, portrayed by Fassbender with admirable self-restraint, for a “talking cure” treatment. He becomes her mentor, and at his request she becomes his assistant. Jung is seduced by his sexually frustrated patient into participating in an experiment of sorts to explore her complex sexual and masochistic traumas from her childhood. He obliges but is eventually conflicted by his infidelity to his wife Emma (an impassive, stoic performance by Sarah Gadon).
Knightley, an actress who’s delivered subtle and compelling performances in films like Atonement and The Duchess, seems miscast here. The many contorts and tics of her face, along with her body writhing antics in order to portray Sabina’s insanity, distracted me from having any sympathy I might have otherwise felt for her character. Not be harsh, Knightley has several moments later in the film were she delivers with the same caliber I’ve witnessed in the past. I just wasn’t sold on her particular portrayal of mental illness.
The film proceeds to focus on the budding friendship of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), who constantly partake in an amusing exchange of professional ideologies. Their relationship eventually clashes due to their irreconcilable theoretical differences.
I was afraid Fassbender would pull a one-dimensional performance here, but he was able to shed the character’s emotional layers by the film’s end with brilliant results. The charismatic actor is one of the very best of his generation and such is evident in this role.
Although a competently delivered performance, I was not as impressed with Viggo Mortensen’s Sigmund Freud. He’s a fine actor, but his calculated characterization of the psychoanalysis founder felt stuck in one gear through most of the film’s duration. An important mention is Vincent Cassell, who stands out with his provocative portrayal of Otto Gross, a drug-using psychoanalyst of devious moral character who’s an advocate for sexual liberation.
The film missed an opportunity to develop a more engrossing relationship between Jung and his wife Emma. It had me wondering, yes, they were well-to-do folks in the high ranks of society, but could they have really been such a strangely non-emotive couple? The film emphasized the concept of self-containment; to that effect, everyone in this film but Sabina was incredibly self-contained; at times this resulted in unrealistically pretentious characterizations.
Overall, I expected a more involving and absorbingly human passionate tale, even erotic (given Cronenberg’s past films), especially when it came to the relationship between Jung and Sabina. Several scenes left me wanting more and should have had more of an impact, and I don’t mean necessarily sexual. I was taken aback by Jung’s display of his affections towards Sabina later in the film, given his detachment during the affair, although that seems to be the point of his character in the plot, to show emotional restraint. The film takes its time to develop the conflicting dynamics between the characters, maybe a little too long. Having said that, it still managed to effectively (although a bit underwhelming) unfold the events and bring it to a cathartic closure.
Perhaps the way in which the actors approached their characters, although eliciting fine performances, especially from Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung, prevented me from being particularly drawn in, or should I say, as emotionally invested in the characters’ dilemmas as I thought I’d be. However, A Dangerous Method is an intellectual film with interesting dialogue and an alluring storyline about a fascinating subject, and that was satisfying enough to keep me engaged throughout.
So in short, I recommend it. Keep in mind though; if you’ve never had an interest in psychology/psychoanalysis, don’t even bother. :)
The film opens in theaters on November 28th.