A Dangerous Method (2011)

David Cronenberg | 1hr 39min

The field of psychoanalysis has come a long way since the days of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, but there may not be so many specialists in the decades since who would make for as compelling drama as that which David Cronenberg plays out in A Dangerous Method. It comes at a stage in the director’s career when he is finding other expressions for his cerebral fascinations in humanity’s most primal fears and desires beyond his renowned displays of shocking body horror. Here, he opts for a quieter, thoughtfully staged interrogation of similar questions around instinct, sexuality, and repression – or at least, of respected historical men professionally and personally involved in such studies.

Joining Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender to round out the trifecta of founding psychoanalysts in A Dangerous Method is Keira Knightley, playing Jung’s patient-turned-colleague, Sabina Spielren. When she first arrives at his research hospital in Zürich, she is mentally broken and suffering from hysteria. There is a lot being asked of Knightley in this role, and in her erratic tics, outbursts, and overdone Russian accent, she doesn’t quite pull it all together. In his remarkable restraint, Fassbender more than compensates for his co-star’s weaknesses though, taking centre stage in a wrestle between refined judgement and primal impulse, or what Freud might call the superego and id.

In treating Spielren, Jung resorts to Freudian treatments of dream interpretation and word association, setting up an educational connection between himself and the founding father of psychoanalysis early on. Theirs is a tumultuous relationship that Fassbender and Mortensen relish every second of in lengthy discussions and disagreements, though in his marvellous depth of field and blocking Cronenberg never lets these dialogue-heavy scenes become so inert as to grow turgid. Split diopter lenses frequent the first half of A Dangerous Method, dividing the foregrounds and backgrounds in therapy sessions that reveal a disconnection between Jung and his patients. In telling his patients to keep their back to him as they speak, he avoids letting his presence inhibit upon their natural state, though in setting up a physical distance between them he also saves himself from engaging too closely.

Split diopter lenses dividing frames right down the centre. A fitting choice to isolate these haughty psychoanalysts from their patients and each other.
Cronenberg’s deep focus cinematography allowing us these crisp, delicate compositions, bringing together wonderful blocking and gorgeous period decor.

It is when Jung and Freud first meet that such barriers begin to break down. The two lose track of time in their very first conversation together, picking each other’s brains for 13 hours straight, though there are irreconcilable differences between their methods. To Freud, sexuality is at the core of the human subconscious, hidden beneath layers of restrained inhibition. To Jung, the unconscious consists of broader, perhaps even mystical elements, and is not at odds with any individual’s conscious ego, but rather supplements it. The aesthetic distinction between both methodologies is evident in Cronenberg’s period decor – Freud’s office is an intricate clutter of books, modern art, cabinets, and statuettes from a diverse range of ancient cultures, crowding out the mise-en-scène with a chaotic sort of intelligence. The neat minimalism of Jung’s workspaces is its inverse, and might even by described by Freud as an image of repression.

The clutter and detail in Freud’s office is marvellous – a strong sense of character through production design.

What ensues from this clash of psychoanalysts is a complex web of transference, particularly as Jung and Spielren submit to the sexual desires brought about by Freud’s dangerous therapeutic method – the talking cure. In meeting an acolyte of Freud who unashamedly began a sexual relationship with a patient and submits to all his most hedonistic impulses, Jung is pushed over the line. Later, another brand of transference emerges in the paternal relationship between Freud and Jung, pertinent to their discussions around father complexes whereby one generation of men is killed by their younger counterparts.

It is a layered screenplay that Cronenberg constructs here, and one that draws a fascinatingly direct line between such reserved historical figures and their observations of emotionally charged human nature. There is no body horror to be found here, and yet Cronenberg reveals that his work is defined less by a disturbing visual style, and more by an ability to draw out a raw vulnerability from within his characters. Then again, perhaps all it took was a filmmaker with an eye for visceral carnal transgressions to find that perverse side to Freud and Jung.

Neatly curated production design all throughout. Cronenberg isn’t know for his exquisitely beautiful visuals, but he shows it off as just another tool in his filmmaker’s arsenal here.

A Dangerous Method is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

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