David Cronenberg has spent decades making films that explore the body and play with sexuality and gender, from men turning into flies to women sucking blood with an orifice in their armpit to people getting off on car crashes that mangle bodies. With that in mind, a movie about the thinkers who have become household names for their breakthroughs in psychoanalysis could serve as a perfect meta-commentary on Cronenberg’s own filmography and his own fascination with the subject, or a more explicit and encompassing exploration of those same themes. It’s a shame, however, that that A Dangerous Method, which chronicles the formative decade or so in the career of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), unfolds in such a conventional and uninspired manner, more of a soap-opera and romantic roller-coaster than an exploration of relationships or study of those who overanalyze them.
Along with Carl Jung, A Dangerous Method depicts Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and the less-famous Sabina Spielrein (Kiera Knightley) and the relationships they share and the ways they change in a time when psychoanalysis, still in its formative stages, can explain problems but offers nothing in helping patients, and everything is still a result of some kind of deficient or suppressed sexual frustration, as neither Jung nor Spielrein has yet challenged Freud. A good deal of the film is spent building the theories of the two, but the theories themselves rarely offer insight to characters or are objects of interest themselves; rather, it merely shows that the psychoanalysts are growing, never taking the time to show us precisely how.
Somewhat unusual for Cronenberg, the story unfolds almost entirely in dialogue, but the sets, interior or exterior, Austria or Switzerland, even America, in their browns and oranges, are so beautifully theatrical, that even an overreliance on shot/reverse-shot keeps these scenes involving. But it’s when Cronenberg turns away from the convention, whether in a word-association game that is edited with increasing erraticism that somehow maintains a very exact sense of rhythm or in any number of smooth-gliding outdoor shots, that A Dangerous Method hits its best notes. It’s unfortunate that these moments are so rare, because they break-away from the clinical routine of the narrative and push Cronenberg, rarely interested in such heavy stylization, into new territory.
Instead, however, a story that starts off interesting enough unfolds far too quickly to ever yield any insight. A frantic and psychologically damaged Sabina dominates the film’s first 15 minutes, thanks to heavily expressionistic acting by Kiera Knightley, which allows the grotesquery of her damage to rise to the surface. But as soon as it’s gone and Knightley has to don a Russian accent, her performance loses all its intrigue, her accent is turned on and off randomly, and her physicality becomes so plain that it’s hard to even believe that the remarkable psychologist at the end of the movie is the disturbed woman at the beginning. Instead of feeling like growth, the two sides feel completely removed, limiting any kind of epiphany and making Jung’s preoccupation with curing feel unrelated to the story at hand despite actually being its starting point. Mortensen and Fassbender deliver every line in such a calculated manner that their characters become psychoanalysts first and humans not at all, which renders much of the betrayal and polygamy that is so heavily discussed more meaningless than the discussion of it, unable to garner any realistic motivation that invites us to look closer.
Indeed, the most that the characters discuss about sex is that it is a natural pleasure and that monogamy represses that pleasure; there is no inclination to penetrate that basic understanding and observe any deeper implications, and that the plot unfolds at such a rapid pace means that no character can ever be a model for our own analysis. This is essentially a romance film padded with elementary psychology conversations to provide a guise of seriousness to a clichéd story that is not interested in the morals or psychology that the characters are so fascinated by.
It is not until the final 20 minutes, when Sabina has grown from a patient to a psychoanalyst in her own right, that multiple interpretations begin to open up, as she discusses first with Freud a link between sex and death necessitated by the ego “out of selfishness,” and then discusses with Jung the cost/benefit of trying to break new ground. But by this point, the entire story is already far behind; A Dangerous Method has far less interest in psychoanalysis than its characters, so even the possibility that interactions are so cold because of a preoccupation among the characters with how they are interacting proves fruitless.
Instead, A Dangerous Method settles to tell a simple story of Jung, treating his patient Sabina, and falling in love with her. It causes a minor moral drama because Jung is already married, but it is never given sufficient attention, nor are the implications of Jung being talked into polygamy. Likewise, Sabina has no significant growth from her first sexual encounter despite many earlier signs suggesting it, and Cronenberg always seems in a hurry to get to the next event instead of letting the impact of anything in particular linger. Often times the story seems to unfold in loosely connected vignettes, with moments of character development expunged, and only an urge to show off sets motivating any kind of forward motion. More than a wasted opportunity, A Dangerous Method is also poor and pointless storytelling, a low for Cronenberg, redeemed only by occasional moments of technical flair but marred by a terrible second act.