Michael Fassbender spanking Keira Knightley, now that’s how you sell a biopic about the beginnings of psychoanalysis! Yes, while director David Cronenberg may be stepping away from his history of violence and trademark “goo” (as Jeremy Thomas calls in in our interview), his enthralling portraits of Carl Jung (Fassbender), Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and the patient who comes between them (Knightley) is not without some lashings of titillation.
Before we had Woody Allen waxing neurotic about his therapist, there was Freud and his heir apparent, Jung, pioneering the subconscious, the power of sex and propounding a revolutionary therapy: ‘the talking cure’. In fact, you almost need to check your Allen rants and In Treatment addiction at the door in order to take this fascinating piece of intellectual history on its own terms.
And yes, that history apparently includes a bit of spanking.
It’s the beginning of the 20th century, and a desperately hysterical young Russian woman seeks help from Dr. Jung. Her body horribly contorted and with her jaw grotesquely jutting out, Knightley’s Sabina Spielrein is a far cry from her previous corseted characters. (For one her jaw is too out of joint to pout.) So when psychoanalytic treatment (the talking cure) proves successful on the sexually askew Speilrein, she not only throws herself whole-heartedly into learning the discipline, but also to bedding her therapist. However, this little tryst doesn’t sit too well with Freud, who is looking to secure his successor and is already having troubles dreaming up a shared future with Jung. It only adds fuel to the fire when Speilrein starts corresponding with Freud…
You can see why Cronenberg calls the film ‘an intellectual ménage à trois.’ And it’s one in which his actors absolutely relish. Knightley goes hell-for-leather with the body horror of Speilrein’s hysteria, in what is a boldly impressive performance. But it is Fassbender and Mortensen who are riveting together on screen; their tête à têtescrafted with more precision and power than an action sequence, and certainly more fascinating to watch. In fact their scenes thrum with such intellectual rigor and dramatic tension, it seems a crying shame that Cronenberg spends such comparatively little time with them.
The focus of A Dangerous Method is much more on Knightley’s Spielrien. Indeed her tale has been doing the rounds: originally a book by John Kerr, it was then adapted into a screenplay by Dangerous Liasons and Atonement scribe Christopher Hampton, before he refashioned it into a play called The Talking Cure, and finally back into screenplay form for Cronenberg. This largely unknown story of such a fierce mind certainly puts the known elements of Freud and Jung in sharp relief, and yet ultimately it feels like a missed opportunity. Fassbender and Mortensen are almost wasted in the roles; their class difference and pitch perfect power play relegated to subplots in favour of Spielrien’s (admittedly intriguing) adventures down the psychoanalytic rabbit hole.
Fortunately the film makes room for a stand out cameo by Vincent Cassel. The dashing Frenchman plays Otto Gross, another of Freud’s protégé’s who advocates sexual healing – literally – as a therapeutic method. Cassel is in scene-stealing form as the hedonistic proto-hippy, who underscores just how nascent and wild the ‘discipline’ was by today’s standards.
Cassel’s character is also further evidence of the film’s intricate research. Impeccably shot and designed, with period detail down to Viggo Mortensen learning Freud’s handwriting, Cronenberg and his team more than do justice to their subjects. A Dangerous Method is masterful filmmaking on all levels, but alas, it also leaves you dreaming that Fassbender and Mortensen will return to these roles in a more focused story on the fathers of psychoanalysis.
3 ½ stars.
Published on TheVine
Australian release date: 29 March 2012