With “A Dangerous Method“, David Cronenberg (director) has the plan to immerse the audience into the world of a forbidden love affair and an intellectual discourse on the fascinating topic of human psychiatry. The film follows the complicated working relationship between two of the most prominent psychoanalysts of the 20th century, Professor Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Dr Jung (Michael Fassbender), as well as shows Dr Jung’s sophisticated affair with his “hysterical” Russian patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). Although nearly all the actors in the movie give praise-worthy performances, the film is also emotionally empty, predictable and, ironically, generally uninteresting.
Psychology discovers hidden meaning(s) behind human actions and thought-processes. That process inevitably entails delving deep into a human psyche, discerning people’s true intentions and motivations behind certain actions. A film about psychology, psychiatry, Freudian psychoanalysis or any mental illness cannot possibly proceed successfully without exploring, or at least attempting to explore, in some depth some of the psychological concepts. In this regard, ‘A Dangerous Method’ is doomed from the very beginning. The film lacks any hint on intellectual probing into the fascinating concept of the human mind. Somehow, Cronenberg here thought it would be unnecessary to go “deeper” and explore the subject, as he had previously done in psychologically-intense ‘Spider’ (2002). However, ‘A Dangerous Method’ is precisely that sort of a film where such an approach is most needed. In sum, the film ends up being a psychoanalysis session for complete dummies. Although there are talks in the movie on such topics as “creative dream interpretation” and “consciousness’s defence mechanisms”, ‘A Dangerous Method’ does very little to explore these terms fully or link them in any way to the story at hand.
As other critics rightly notice, one of the main faults of ‘A Dangerous Method’ is its “muddy” script. As the film has no twists, or complex/intriguing turns of events, and because it stays only too close to the actual historical events, ‘A Dangerous Method’ sometimes becomes a real bore. As in Cronenberg’s ‘A History of Violence’ (2005), the audience sees in ‘A Dangerous Method’ the same preoccupation with the characters, their interactions/dialogues; and there is no real concern here with the settings or special effects. However, whereas ‘A History of Violence’ has a great script with this compelling and interesting story laid out, the plot in ‘A Dangerous Method’ is at best predictable, and at worst not really worth remembering at all.
The film’s portrayal of the relationship between Freud and Jung is also contrived and misleading. The viewer is taken through the psychoanalysts’ major points of disagreements, including Jung’s fascination with mysticism and Freud’s rigid categorisation. However, the film does it in such a brief, tiresome fashion, it becomes uninteresting to watch. And, if the working relationship between Freud and Jung is portrayed as lacking any substantial conflicts or other forms of excitement, the relationship between Spielrein and Jung in the film is even duller to contemplate. It is almost impossible to discern any strong feelings of affection between the two characters, and their mutual attraction seems to be a purely sexual one. Even the main characters’ bed encounters are presented as nothing more than brief instances of unexciting BDSM sessions, the depictions of which are “clinical” and unimaginative. Throughout the film, it is very hard to believe that Jung and Spielrein’s physical attraction ever progressed to being anything more. Jung and Spielrein’s brief reunion at the end of the film, when they voice their “supposed” regrets is painful to watch, not least because it was hard to sympathise/empathise with Jung or Spielberg and their feelings throughout the film.
Then, there is this much-talked-about Knightley’s portrayal of “hysteria” in the movie. Here, Knightley “over-acts” to such an extent that she and her performance hardly merit any interest. There is no clue in the film that there is anything “hidden”, “dark” or “repressed” going on, in the fashion of Dennis Clegg’s mental disturbances (‘Spider’). In the film, during Spielrein’s first ever meeting with Dr Jung, she tells him everything he needs to know about her condition, including her private thoughts and feelings, and one cannot possibly image a more straightforward and “boring” case of “hysteria” to disentangle. If anything, McQueen’s latest ‘Shame’ (2011) is more “Freudian” than Cronenberg’s ‘A Dangerous Method’ ever aspires to become. In the former film, a person’s sexuality, feelings and thoughts are fully explored in that interesting, subtle way, which leaves one wanting to know all the answers which were not revealed.
On a positive note, Mortensen and Fassbender give terrific performances, and especially extraordinary is Mortensen’s transformation into authoritative Professor Freud. Knightley, having a difficult role to play, also improves immensely as the film drags on, although her ability to “fake” a Russian accent leaves much to be desired. Vincent Cassel is also good in the role of Otto Gross, a doctor and subsequent patient at Burghölzli, whose liberal views towards sexuality and his explicit opposition to monogamy help Dr Jung overcome cerebral constraints regarding his extra-marital affair with his patient.
However, what really stands out in this film is probably the sporadic flashes of humour. These really are “breaths-of-fresh-air” in this tedious, “polluted” plot, especially after some ten-minutes or so monotonous, “no-end-in-sight” dialogues. Also, thankfully, ‘A Dangerous Method’ does not run long: it is slightly over 95 minutes’ long. However, with the film’s plot stretching from the early 1900 to the First World War, there is hardly enough time to explore any of the characters fully or to show the intensity of their inner/outer conflicts.
In sum, ‘A Dangerous Method’ could have been so much more than it actually is, especially taking into account such a fascinating working relationship to explore and such an interesting topic as psychoanalysis to play with; the film only becomes enjoyable in an intellectual or emotional way if one mentally accords to this film much more meaning that it is actually there. 5/10