Method to his madness: A Dangerous Method

The immediate pleasure offered by A Dangerous Method is literate dialogue. Adapting his own play, Christopher Hampton makes Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) not a pillar so much as a stalk of rectitude and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) a droll ironist addicted to cigars and ascending octaves. A reputation for high-toned gore has shadowed David Cronenberg’s talent for breathing life into jargon, for capturing the excitement of meeting another person who understands you. He makes scientific badinage kinky. Like Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone, Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, and William Lee in Naked Lunch, Fassbender is attracted to a female partner’s sympathy and professional intelligence, here represented by neurotic and future psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein and played by Keira Knightley. After an uneasy start, in which she writhes and aims her jutting lantern jaw at any moving target in the Oscar-honored manner of playing wacko women, Knightley actually improves: I could believe that she would meet Jung on a bench in Vienna to swap theories about the connections between sex and death.

A good thing too, for I didn’t feel the supposed warmth between Jung and Freud to which their letters allude. For every smart editing choice (i.e. cutting from Knightly’s astonishment at seeing hymeneal blood on white sheets to Jung’s family playing in his plush quarters), Cronenberg elides much. A Dangerous Method could have benefited from an extra half hour or three quarters of an hour. Why do Hampton and Cronenberg make such a fuss about Freud and Jung’s trip to America only to film two scenes aboard ship? Why does their friendship fray when we’re barely introduced to them? One of the film’s strengths is its unsentimentality about human relations. Barely a personal remark passes between Freud and Jung. The latter’s wife Emma (a subtle Sarah Gadon) tolerates his philandering as long as he keeps her pregnant. But Cronenberg and Hampton haven’t thought through this paradox. A Dangerous Mind just stops. Still, it’s a movie of smart, quiet grace, none more so than when Mortensen’s Freud, easing back into his leather chair, surrounded by African kitsch, drinks in his young colleague’s flattery like aged port.

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