DIRECTED BY DAVID CRONENBERG
A Dangerous Method, which concerns the turbulent relationships between early psychoanalysts Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, and the less-heralded Sabina Spielrein, is generally accomplished, but it is at once also overly dispassionate and insufficiently edifying. David Cronenberg’s skillfully detached direction and Christopher Hampton’s mannered, measured screenplay may be entirely in keeping with the material’s clinical, turn-of-the-20th-century setting, and with the stifled impulses of the characters, but these qualities also serve as obstacles to firmly establishing the scenario’s emotional stakes. Because of this, rather than the illicit, ill-fated romance between Jung and Spielrein, the theoretical tête-à-têtes between Jung and Freud are the film‘s most engaging element. It’s a disappointment that its most intriguing scenes aren’t more elaborately developed.
As portrayed by the predictably excellent Michael Fassbender, Jung begins the film as an ardent adherent of the pioneering Freud (an equally excellent Viggo Mortensen), and is eager to put the latter’s “talking cure” into practice on a hysterical young woman (Kiera Knightley’s Spielrein), who is committed to his care. Initially crazed, cackling, and grossly contorted, Spielrein is transformed by the treatment, a result that fosters both a collegial bond between Jung and Freud, and a doctor-patient friendship fraught with sexual tension. Inspired by a disgraced Freudian disciple (a show-stealing cameo from Vincent Cassel), Jung takes Spielrein as a mistress, and encourages her to pursue her own ambitions as an analyst. His bond with Freud, meanwhile, gradually falls apart as the elder practitioner resists his protégé’s bid to expand the nascent science of psychiatry into overtly spiritual realms. (Undertones of oedipal patricidal paranoia also abound.)
In adapting both his own stage play, The Talking Cure, and John Kerr’s non-fiction book, A Most Dangerous Method, Hampton draws on archival correspondences between Jung and Freud. The missives and (all too brief) face-to-face encounters that chart the course of their complex relationship are consistently compelling, if slightly cursory in their handling of the subject matter. Scenes between Jung and Spielrein, in contrast, are hampered by the film’s elliptical structure and its general air of restraint. Ultimately, it’s Jung and Freud’s barbed epistolary exchanges—and not scenes of Jung dourly gratifying Spielren with sexually charged spankings—that carry the greatest sting.