David Cronenberg films come in two flavors: explicitly sexual and explicitly gory. Sometimes those distinct flavors mix and you get something explicitly sexual AND gory. Psychosis and sadomasochistic sex find their way into the itinerary in A Dangerous Method starring Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortensen, and Keira Knightley. Possibly Cronenberg’s most restrained film yet, this movie will probably only be of interest to admirers of Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung.
The film follows the early professional years of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) as he treats and later romances a high profile Russian patient (Keira Knightley). The case brings him to the attention of Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and Jung begins to lose his bearings as he engages in a weird father-daughter-sadomasochistic courtship with the girl. This movie proposes that the relationship between Jung and his patient, serving as the centerpiece of the film, informed much of Jung’s work and served as the crux of his friendship and feud with his own mentor.
The bright spot in this production is the cast. Viggo Mortensen gives the best performance in the movie, choosing to portray Freud as a narcissistic screwball obsessed with sex, which by all accounts he was. As Freud he gives one of those sinister, internalized performances that only he and Robert De Niro (when De Niro was actually good) can give. Keira Knightley is over the top in her role as a mental patient, but I suppose you could argue that’s the point. In any case, she’s never particularly distracting.
Michael Fassbender turns in an interesting performance and continues to show just how invaluable he is on the heels of diverse and fantastic performances in Hunger, X-men First Class, and Shame (or so I’m told on that last one). As played by Fassbender, Jung represents something of a gender role reversal. In the male dominated setting of this film, Jung’s aristocratic wife supplies him with money that allows him to single mindedly pursue his passion. She also maintains the family. Meanwhile, his high profile mental patient spurs his career onward and brings him in contact with Freud.
He essentially owes his illustrious career to two powerful women, and he sort of passively pinballs between the two. When Knightley’s character aggressively pursues him, Jung succumbs to her charms. When his wife anonymously exerts pressure on him to break off the affair, he does so. Fassbender infuses his character with a thin skinned stoicism. While posing as a masculine, rational thinker he behaves somewhat effeminately. When Knightley loses interest in him and breaks off the relationship, he cries into her lap.
But interesting role reversals and sharp performances aside, the whole production will likely be a bore for anyone not interested in Freud or Jung. Stripped of its prestigious director and excellent cast, A Dangerous Method comes across as just another period piece romance of the sort Miramax regularly released in the ‘90s. Think Tom and Viv (1994), which also had a good cast (headed by Willem Dafoe) and which also managed to be sorta lukewarm and underwhelming. Cronenberg has made a movie that’s thoughtful and pretty to look at but also inert.
If Cronenberg hadn’t already filled his earlier films with enough Freudian and Jungian imagery to fill a multivolume treatise on sex and death in contemporary film, I might be tempted to say that A Dangerous Method is a cynical exercise in Oscar baiting. This movie has everything that makes the Academy weak in the knees – Academy Award nominated actors, a European period setting, formal costumes, “scandalous” romance and English accents – and yet the film surprisingly received no love from the usually predictable gang of geriatrics. Maybe they just really hate Cronenberg. If that’s the case, then hopefully he returns to more familiar and unrestrained territory with his next project.