Even with the spanking, this is a bit of a bore.
Despite its seemingly perfect match of filmmaker and subject – bodily minded director David Cronenberg and the sexually charged rise of psychoanalysis – A Dangerous Method is further evidence that movies are most interestingly about something when they aren’t so obviously about it.
Based on the book by John Kerr, which screenwriter Christopher Hampton previously adapted into a play, A Dangerous Method traces the collaboration and eventual falling out of Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) in the early 1900s, when both were at the forefront of the burgeoning, though suspect, field of psychoanalysis. The third figure in the tale is Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a former patient and eventual colleague of Jung’s who is also, at various points, his illicit lover.
A Dangerous Method takes on quite a bit, too much to be fully satisfying. Much time is spent laying out the intellectual rivalry between the two men, but it’s mostly done via extended, clinical conversations. Mortensen and Fassbender are both fine actors – I’m starting to wonder what role the versatile Fassbender can’t play – yet their charisma can only carry the scenes so far. Aside from extensive deep-focus cinematography, in which both the face in the foreground and the person in the background are equally clear, A Dangerous Method does little to dramatize its narrative.
There is drama in the relationship between Jung and Spielrein, enough to make me wonder if A Dangerous Method would have been stronger if Freud had been left on the sidelines. A masochist who finds a sense of self worth via psychoanalysis – to the point that she herself becomes an analyst – Spielrein is both a vindication of Jung’s work and also his personal downfall. The psychological messiness of sexuality is right there in their relationship.
At least you sense that it is, for this thread, too, gets less attention than it deserves (largely because we return to Freud from time to time). Yes, the spanking shows up here, but so does an awful lot of academic conversation. When these two engage in pillow talk, it’s as if they’re reading from a PhD dissertation.
A Dangerous Method is intriguing in bits and pieces, yet nothing comes to fruition. In the end, we’re left with the sense that Cronenberg’s Crash – about car-accident victims who find sexual gratification via crashes – tells us more about the theories of Freud and Jung than the stately proceedings on display here.