A Dangerous Method opens in Zurich in 1904 as we follow a horse-drawn carriage containing a raving Keira Knightley up to a large sanitarium, where she then begins treatment for her violent episodes in the care of Carl Jung, played by Michael Fassbender. Jung employs the new and “dangerous” method in question for her therapy, considered pretty radical for the time: conversation.
In an early interview with Jung, Knightley’s character, Sabina Spielrein, sputters and stammers in a hit-or-miss Russian accent, jutting out her jaw like a Neanderthal, all the while confessing the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, and how she secretly enjoyed herself. It’s blatant Oscar-baiting, but this scene is sadly the most interesting in the film. Not coincidentally, it’s also where director David Cronenberg’s hand is most evident. As the force behind such works as A History of Violence, eXistenZ, Crash, Naked Lunch, and Videodrome, Cronenberg loves to wallow around in the twisted recesses of the psyche where all the dark things lurk, and this scene certainly does make the viewer squirm. But whether the discomfort comes from the risqué subject matter or Knightley’s less-than-grounded performance is up for debate.
The rest of the film deals with Jung’s true-life relationship with Sabina, as well as his collaboration with mentor Sigmund Freud, played here by Viggo Mortensen. The genesis of modern psychoanalysis as created by two brilliant men who wound up developing a permanent ideological rift certainly sounds entertaining on paper, especially when you also throw in Jung’s torrid, sadomasochistic affair with Sabina. In fact, the story was on paper twice before, as a book by John Kerr and a play by Christopher Hampton. But on the screen, it comes off dreary and pedantic, like a big-budget special for the History Channel.
The screenplay, also by Hampton, is mostly to blame. It saps the life out of relationships that are rife with emotion. Hampton has the characters mostly droning on about dream analysis and the intricacies of psychology, without infusing any substance beneath all the discussion. Fassbender does a good enough job as Jung, but the script gives him little to do except glower and pine stoically. When he makes the ridiculous accusation that Sabina orchestrated his seduction, whatever sympathy we might have for the character falls away. Viggo Mortensen, usually such a strong presence, feels like he’s wearing age makeup and deepening his voice to sound patriarchal. Keira Knightley’s overall performance is about as good as her Russian accent.
The one all-too-brief bright spot in the proceedings is Vincent Cassel, who plays Dr. Otto Gross, a psychologist himself, and a patient of Jung’s. Gross is the embodiment of Freud’s concept of the id, acting purely on impulse and indulging in every base human desire, especially free love. Cassel’s Dr. Gross brims with such quiet, rakish charm and personality that he acts as the catalyst for the married Jung’s decision to begin his affair with Sabina. The movie and the audience both are worse off when he leaves.
If one were to sit A Dangerous Method on the couch and analyze it, it might be said to be using intellectualization to cover up something deeper and unexpressed. Caring more about the journey than the destination (neither of which are particularly interesting), the film is ultimately nothing more than a Freudian slip-up.