David Cronenberg is an exemplary case of thematic evolution in a movie director, having gone from grindhouse-ready horror to his latest lavish historical drama without really changing his creative identity. Known for his emphasis on "body horror," there is a clinical attitude in his work that makes the early days of psychoanalysis an ideal subject for him. That those early days include a lot of transgressive sexuality and human grotesquerie doesn't hurt, either. The Cronenberg touch comes through most clearly in Keira Knightley's performance as subject turned scholar Sabina Spielrein, and in a scene portraying an early sort of polygraph test. In the latter, Cronenberg focuses on the equipment and preparations as if the word-association test Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) performs on his wife (Sarah Gordon) were a mad-science experiment. As for Knightley, apparently a star pupil at the Natalie Portman Academy for Portrayals of the Disturbed, she contorts herself in such a convulsive, jaw-jutting manner while pantomiming Spielrein's hysterics that you expect her to turn fully into a werewolf. Knightley's performance is over-the-top but needs to be, I suppose, to demonstrate the danger in the method for the subject and the analyst. It also fulfills Cronenberg's purpose to disturb, and on that score Dangerous Method is a disquieting film on many levels. In a way, it's another horror film, but the subject is intellectual horror subtly expressed, the suspicion raised that no great good has come or can come from the methods of Jung and his erstwhile idol and eventual enemy Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortenson) -- that Freud is right in joking that he and Jung are bringing a "plague" when they first visit America. I can imagine the psychoanalytic community disliking this film quite strongly.
What's dangerous about the method is the intimacy it requires between analyst and subject, given Freud's founding emphasis, which Jung finds increasingly dogmatic, on sexuality. A worst-case scenario confronts Jung in the form of Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), a Freud protege for whom psychoanalysis has enabled a sex addiction resulting in the serial seduction of his patients. Jung rebels against Freud's monofocus on sex, in part because he entertains notions of parapsychology, but also because he'd like to rebel against the sexual urges building during his treatment of the virgin masochist Sabina. Despite giving in frequently to kinky temptations -- Sabina likes to be flogged -- Jung will continue to rebel by denying his relationship with Spielrein, which means hiding it unsuccessfully from his wife and lying about it to Freud. In time, just as Jung grows out of Freud's shadow, so Spielrein will grow out of Jung's -- but he'll just take up another mistress, living by the classic Victorian double-standard off his wife's wealth while still hoping to find a method to change people for the better.
Pessimism pervades Cronenberg's film of Christopher Hampton's script. By recounting the follies of a century ago, Dangerous Method also recalls the doomed optimism of the more modern sexual revolution. The film seems certain that neither sex itself nor any objective frankness about it will save the world or any individuals. Jung's hope that psychoanalysis (he pronounces it "psyche-analysis" to Freud's disappointment) can help people become what they're supposedly meant to be butts against Freud's almost conservative feeling that the best it can do is tell us why we are the way we are. The film's Freud is a condescending conservative if not a suspicious reactionary -- it's a great performance by Mortenson -- more concerned with defending his gains and fending off expected attacks than in pushing forward toward the greater discoveries Jung hopes for. The script is subtle enough to let us judge Freud either way. When he dismisses Jung's interest in telepathy and related subjects, it could simply be commonsense materialism or it could be closed-minded dogmatism. We see how factors of class and religion complicate the doctors' intellectual relationship. While Freud's home looks like a comfortable oasis of civilization to us, it can't help but look cramped and cheap compared to Jung's luxurious quarters. Is Freud jealous? Perhaps not, but in one of his last scenes he confides to Sabina, a fellow Jew, that ultimately gentiles like Jung can't fully be trusted. An epilogue confirms this to some extent, reminding us that Freud barely escaped the Nazi occupation of Vienna, and that Spielrein did not escape when the Nazis invaded Russia. There's no suggestion that Jung himself is anti-Semitic, but the inescapable awareness for Freud of widespread anti-Semitism is one of the factors that complicated and possibly compromised his thinking, just as Jung's was compromised by innumerable forces in his life. Were they really any better for their discoveries? The most the film can say is that at least Spielrein isn't having screaming fits like she used to, but Knightley undermined that message somewhat through her inability -- faithful to life or not -- to relax. But it's the film's own idea that a certain madness -- the pedantic-seeming Freud notwithstanding -- is necessary to the method. The film's moral could easily be: Analyst, heal thyself.
For me, the fact that the movie has me thinking of getting books on Freud and Jung is probably proof of A Dangerous Method's success. I confess to not knowing enough about the two, not to mention Spielrein, to know whether Hampton and Cronenberg have been fair to them. But I found the movie intellectually stimulating as well as disturbing in the characteristic Cronenberg manner. Right now I don't feel that I can just leave the things it brought up behind at the theater. I thought the film succeeded visually as well, apart from the CGI rendering of the doctors' transatlantic voyage, while Howard Shore's score was, if you can imagine it, subtly Wagnerian. The acting was impressive all around, Mortenson truly proving himself in a non-action role, Knightley fulfilling her purpose to disturb through excess, and the much-hyped Fassbender giving the best performance I've seen from him yet -- the moustache practically makes him a different man. The film got lost in the awards shuffle, perhaps because of its implicitly skeptical attitude toward psychoanalysis, but I'd have no problem saying it's one of the best 2011 films I've seen so far.