“A Dangerous Method” (2011)

The prospect of Dave Cronenberg directing Keira Knightley in a film about spanking would doubtless wet the appetite of a few.  Cronenberg has in the past delivered up many a sensual cinematic moment.  He made Crash, not the awful Oscar winner but the kinky JG Ballard adaptation.  You would think that any filmmaker who could eroticize car accidents could find something exciting in Ms Knightley bending without a thought of Beckham to take her punishment.

Not so.  Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method is peculiarly cold and chaste.  For a movie about two of history’s most influential sexual theorists there’s remarkably little for the raincoat brigade.  Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud talk an awful lot about the reproductive act and its psychological underpinnings but scarcely put anything into practice.  It’s a largely passionless drama which revels in this irony: a film about repression that is itself repressed.

 

For a start, there is nothing particularly dangerous about the methods employed by Jung to cure his patient Sabina Spielrein.  Influenced by the ideas of his older colleague Freud, Jung talks her through her psychosis, identifying masochistic tendencies grounded in the harsh corporal punishment inflicted by an overbearing father.  Spielrein recovers sufficiently to qualify as a doctor and psychiatrist.   When she offers herself to Jung - using the argument that she needs first hand experience if she is to study in the field of human sexuality - the professor is forced to confront  temptation.  Influenced by a hedonistic, persuasive patient to indulge every desire, Jung begins an affair.

 

To labour the point, there are lost opportunities aplenty in the way Cronenberg and playwright Christopher Hampton dramatise Jung’s and Spielrein’s fling.  It is not clear until the very end of the film the extent of either character’s emotional engagement with the other.  The seduction itself is presented in a matter-of-fact manner and in the montage that follows Jung seems to have no qualms about indulging his former patient’s masochism.  Would not Spielrein’s determination to be spanked by her father figure physician be some kind of issue for the professor, either erotically stimulating or ethically problematic, furthering the guilt he already feels about the professional misconduct?  The film is frustratingly quiet on these issues, even as Jung brings the affair to a premature end.

 

The bulk of what follows in the narrative is devoted to the slow deterioration in the friendship and scholarly relationship of Jung and Freud.  Although well enough acted and written the extent to which this is interesting will be relative to your enthusiasm for the psychological debates of the early 20th century.  As human drama it misses.  The geniuses are such cold fishes that it’s difficult to care one way or the other.  At one point, when it looks as though Freud has had a stroke or heart attack, Jung doesn’t seem upset in the least.

 

Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortenson do admirable jobs as Jung and Freud, respectively.  Keira Knightley is at best inconsistent.  She tries very hard in early scenes to feign madness but her facial ticks and contortions are amateurish and unconvincing.  There’s also the problem of her character’s accent.  Spielrein is a Russian Jew and Knightley gives it her all.  Unfortunately this shows up Mortenson’s inability to pull off a Viennese accent.  Cronenberg should have ensured either all his actors spoke English with nationalistic inflection or none did.

 

I think there’s a much better movie inside A Dangerous Method, trying to get out.   In retrospect Cronenberg was the wrong director to film such a story.  I would have liked to have seen what Philip Kaufman would have done with the material, particularly if he could have cast the young Kate Winslet in the Spielrein part.  It could have been another racy  Henry & June instead of a dull Sigmund & Carl.

 

 


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The film reviews and critical essays on this site are drawn from material either previously published or broadcast on radio.   Most, but not all, of the titles discussed are available for rental from Auteur House.

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