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Non-Review Review: A Dangerous Method

Charles Issawi once formulated Syre’s Law, named for noted academic Wallace Stanley Sayre. “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake,” he argued. “That is why academic politics are so bitter.” Set in the shadow of not one but two looming European conflicts, David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, adapted from the play The Talking Cure, makes sure that we know just how bitter academic politics can be. Ably supported by two strong performances from its three leads, the movie is at its most fascinating in exploring the ideological and personal relationships of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, but loses a large amount of momentum when we’re asked to accept Keira Knightley as a mad Russian.

Psycho-analysts, assemble!

Although the possibility of a coming conflict is only really mentioned in passing, as Jung’s prophetic dreams suggest a river of blood – “the blood of Europe” – flowing across the Alps, the specter looms large. Although Viggo Mortensen’s Freud is careful to couch his psycho-analytic theories in sexual terms, the movie suggests that he does this as a means of displacing his real sense of unease. The divide between Jung and Freud, the movie suggests, might have been elegantly stated as a difference in philosophical position over the treatment of those suffering from psychiatric disorders, but it’s really one foreshadowing the conflict to come.

Early on Freud suggests that his theories will come under fire because of his own Jewish heritage. Meeting with Jung’s patient (and mistress) Sabrina Spielrein, he suggests that the two should bond as Jews against the very Aryan Jung. In fact, it’s telling that Freud’s primary objection to Jung is that the latter is “playing God”and that he takes exception to the introduction of religion to Spielrein’s theories. The closing text explores the fates of the primary characters after the film comes to an end, and it seems that Jung is the only one to escape the war unscathed, with both Freud and Spielrein persecuted for their religious beliefs.

The Jung and the restless...

Indeed, the movie is at its best when it focuses on the relationship between Freud and Jung as two individuals slowly coming to loathe one another while feigning mutual appreciation. They speak in the most civilised of terms, crossing paths at verious conferences and touring together, but the barbs are there. Jung sees Freud as an outdated throwback, a man resting on his laurels and lacking any will to push his ideas forward. He lords his wealth over the Viennese psychiatrist, joking with his wife about Freud’s reaction on first seeing their estate. To Jung, Freud’s followers are narrow-minded sycophants, and Freud seeks only to bask in their glory while proclaiming himself king-of-the-hill.

Freud sees Jung as the most dangerous of hypocrites, a man sleeping with one of his subjects while seeking to lecture others on proper psychiatry. Jung’s belief in mysticism and new age philosophy clearly perturbs Freud, who seems very intent on managing what the public will make of his theories. Ironically, Freud himself seems reluctant to push his own ideas to the fore, and it’s Jung who puts Freud’s theories in practice with a Russian patient, Sabrina Spielrein.

Close, but no cigar...

While Fassbender’s Jung is a solid creation, as we’ve come to expect from the actor, it’s Viggo Mortensen who owns the movie. Very much a supporting character, and off-screen for far too long, Mortensen’s portrayal of Freud is deft and intelligent. It’s easy to slip into narrow parody when playing a sex-obsessed, cigar-smoking and ego-maniacal Austrian. Mortensen is instead understated. The cigar is never far from his lips, but there’s no couch to be seen. Nor, wisely, does Mortensen afford an Austrian accent. Fassbender wisely avoids an attempt at a Swiss accent either. Both actors choose to avoid that potential prat fall.

Mortensen plays Freud as a very dangerous academic predator, a character who never means what he says and always seems to have an agenda in everything he does. The movie focuses on Jung, and we’re always privy to his ideas and thoughts on Freud. On the other hand, Freud is something of a mystery, and he’s fascinatingly difficult to get a read on. Mortensen’s performance is nuanced and careful, giving away just enough to tease us with possibilities, without giving us any hard answers.

A Fass thinker...

It’s hard to believe, for example, that his decision to ask Jung to take care of the nymphomaniac Otto Gross was entirely professional. Freud had to suspect that Gross would rationalise his own sordid habits to Jung, potentially pushing the psychiatrist over the edge and compromising him. Similarly, it’s hard to get a reading on Freud when he warns his “friend” of the rumours circulating in Vienna, fueled by anonymous letters. While we know Freud didn’t write the letters, it’s not hard to imagine him gleefully chipping away at his young colleague’s reputation.

However, sadly, the movie isn’t solely devoted to the battle of wits and ideals between Freud and Jung in the context of turn-of-the-century psychiatric ideals. If it were, it would be an easy recommendation. However, Christopher Hampton’s screenplay chooses to focus on Jung’s patient-slash-mistress, Sabrina Spielrein. And, for some reason I cannot fathom, David Cronenberg opted to cast Keira Knightley in the role.

Russian for that Oscar...

It can’t help but feel like a cynical ploy for awards from the young actress, particularly when her performance is measured against the more sophisticated and subtle turns from Fassbender and Mortensen. While neither of those two opted for accents, perhaps sensing how they might distract the audience or reduce the characters to caricatures, Knightley insists upon a terrible Russian accent. It’s not bad in places, but there are times (mostly while shouting, sobbing or climaxing) when it seems like she’s putting on an awful American accent instead.

More than that, though, Knightley is playing a psychologically impaired individual. Add that to the period setting of the film, and the fact that it’s based on a play, it seems that Knightley smells awards catnip. Here’s the thing, though: those actors and actresses who garnered awards for playing characters facing those sorts of impairments won because they found something more than a collection of tics and quirks. Here, Knightley’s jutting jaw provides a hint of Cronenberg’s renowned body horror to what might be his most conventional film, but Knightley never finds a character beneath the stutter and the spasms. It’s like she’s retroactively auditioning for the role of Renfield in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

My brain is Freud...

I mentioned that this is probably Cronenberg’s most conventional film, and I think that’s fair. The issue of sexual identity does add a sense of continuity to some of his other works, films like Crash or Shivers or Dead Ringers. It also gives the movie just the hint of an edge. That said, this does feel like a conscious attempt by Cronenberg to direct a stately period drama. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and he does a pretty good job. In particular, the production design of the movie is wonderfully impressive. He avoids sensationalising the sex scenes, instead framing them within the academic discussions of human sexuality shared by his cast of characters.

And yet Cronenberg seems to relish the contrast with the more buttoned-down and repressed aspects of the screenplay. After all, Jung and Freud have their climactic confrontation via strongly-worded letters rather than through a shouting match or physical confrontation, and a large amount of the film is spent with various characters professing things that they may or may not actually believe. When it works, the movie is an absolutely fascinating exploration of the nature of human interaction, and the social games that we play with one another. I don’t think I’ve ever seen academic politics captured so skilfully.

Dangerous minds...

A Dangerous Method is an interesting cocktail. Some of it is delicious, especially those scenes shared between Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen. However, the focus on Sabrina Spielrein means that it’s up to Keira Knightley to carry a large part of the film, and she’s simply not up to it. Perhaps, like a lot of Freud’s work, the movie is more interesting than it is truly successful.

6 Responses

  1. Interesting that you think the actors “opt” for various accents.
    Really, though, they do the accents they’re told to by the director.
    He’s also responsible for the ticks and quirks.

    • Well, by that logic, everything that is wrong with a film is entirely due to the director.

      And, to be honest, the issue isn’t that the character has a Russian accent. The issue is that Keira Knightley does an awful Russian accent, which raises the question of why bother? And I pointed out, as part of that, that Fassbender and Mortensen didn’t do accents. While Cronenberg might have suggested the accent, Knightley couldn’t do it – and I do point out that it was Cronenberg’s decision to cast her. Simialrly with the tics and quirks – my issue wasn’t that she was doing them, which was what Cronenberg probably wanted, but that she did them badly. That she couldn’t find a character beneath them. Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man or Sean Penn in I Am Sam had at least as many tics and quirks, but they also formed characters beneath them. Knightley didn’t.

      Also, from the article, Cronenberg is quick to suggest a lot of what we she are ultimately ehr choices, as much as he may have discussed them with her:

      That’s all her. She went to Christopher for a pile of books and then we talked about how much of a Russian accent she should have and what should be the level of hysteria for those early scenes. But how to manifest it was all from her.

  2. Good review Darren. The performances are good, even though Knightley may be over-acting quite a bit, and it looks great, but the film also just feels like a series of vignettes with no real feeling or drama to it. Basically what I’m trying to say was that I was bored and this story just never really got off the ground.

  3. I have to say I agree. Keira Knightly really did her best to ruin the film for me, I was too aware of the ‘performance’ of it, and never saw her as the character. The relationship between herself and Jung had the potential to be interesting, but I kept having the mental block of seeing Knightly in the scene with Jung rather than Sabrina. The accent was truly awful too.

    Having said that I was interested in the story, and the characters of Jung and Freud, it was enough to save the film for me. I can’t see myself rushing to watch it again, but I did find myself thinking about it a few days after I had watched it, always a good sign

    • Thanks Ruth, kinda glad to hear I’m not alone. It just seemed like such a transparent bid for an Oscar nomination. And Freud and Jung were a gret on-screen duo, I actually found their interactions far more interesting and intriguing.

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