Sony // 2011 // 99 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // March 22nd, 2012
Based on the true story of Jung, Freud, and the patient who came between them.
In an important scene in A Dangerous Method, Freud compares himself to Christopher Columbus. His point is that Columbus didn't know what he discovered, but he knew something was there. Freud feels the same way; he doesn't know where he is with psychoanalysis, but he knows that the things he studies are there. The comparison is almost too good. Both Columbus and Freud were brave men who helped usher in a new age for their cultures. Both were also proved to be a bit of a letdown, historically speaking. Columbus was hardly the first person to set foot on what became American shores, and, as pioneering as Freud was in the study of human psychology, his insights have largely been either been overturned or ignored for lack of empirical evidence. The great thing about Freud (as opposed to Columbus) is that, despite the problems with his theories, he's more fascinating for his foibles, not less. A Dangerous Method recognizes this fact and does its best to lay Freud (and Jung) bare. The film largely succeeds, but for some it will be an empty victory.
It's the early years of the twentieth century, and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises) has just published his monumental The Interpretation of Dreams, a book that would launch psychoanalysis as a discipline. He's also made some references to a "talking cure" for various psychological disorders, but hasn't yet published his clinical methods. Despite this fact, the idea attracts another young physician and would-be psychoanalyst, C.G. Jung (Michael Fassbender, Inglourious Basterds). Jung uses Freud's "talking cure" on a new patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley, Atonement). Though Jung helps Speilrein overcome her difficulties, the case gives Jung the perfect excuse to contact the older Freud. A friendship develops, but Jung's increasingly intimate relationship with Spielrein begins to threaten everything.
Today, everyone has a pretty solid picture of what therapy looks like, thanks to popular culture. It's not too different from what we watched Tony do on The Sopranos with Lorraine Bracco's Dr. Melfi; the patient sits and talks with the therapist, and this conversation produces insights and relieves anxiety. Though there are a variety of therapies in effect today, many (if not most) are based on this general model. It's hard to imagine just how novel the idea was in 1900. After all, we don't talk people out of colds, so what made Freud think we could talk them out of fits and compulsions and neuroses? A Dangerous Method does an amazing job of capturing the "Wild West" feel of the early debates about psychoanalysis and the titanic struggle that occurred between the elder Freud and his heir apparent Jung. To make what was ultimately a disagreement over method into the stuff of international drama is a masterstroke.
There are those who've cried after every film Cronenberg has done since at least Spider , "But this is the guy who made Scanners! The Fly! Videodrome!" as if those films were somehow more Cronenbergian than his twenty-first century flicks. The most fascinating thing about A Dangerous Method to me is the way that Cronenberg continues all his old obsessions, but finds new ways of expressing himself in the medium of cinema. Cronenberg is still obsessed with the figure of the hyper-rational scientist (much like The Brood or Scanners), but this time his scientists are historical figures. He's still also obsessed with the body, and how the mind can affect the body. Just witness Keira Knightley's horrific physical tics and bodily contortions. Her anxieties are written all over her bodily performance. No, she doesn't sprout a vampiric penis out of her armpit like Marilyn Chambers in Rabid, but the older concerns are still there.
Keira Knightley's performance is simply wonderful in the film. It is rare that an actress of her stature would allow herself to be as ugly as Sabina Spielrein must be in the film. She contorts, she mumbles, she looks like an Edwardian Gollum. She's matched by the simply perfect performances of Mortensen and Fassbender. Again, it's all about the body language. Fassbender is all stiff shoulders and total control as he attempts to deny his desires for Spielrein. In contrast, Mortensen's Freud seems more relaxed, leaning back in chairs and smoking his cigar, but Mortensen plays the neuroses bubbling just under the surface with a stiffness that becomes more and more apparent as the film goes on. Vincent Cassel makes a too-brief appearance as an enfant terrible of the nascent psychoanalysis movement, and he's never been more charming and irascible.
A Dangerous Method (Blu-ray) is exactly the release the film deserves. The 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is almost reference quality. Fine detail is extraordinary; witness Jung's coat in several scenes, where the individual weave of the fabric resolves to give it a remarkable texture. Colors are appropriate, and black levels are deep and no digital artefacts mar the presentation. The DTS-HD soundtrack does a similarly fantastic job balancing the film's dialogue with Cronenberg regular Howard Shore's score. Surround don't get much use, but that's totally appropriate for a film of this type.
Luckily, we get a Cronenberg commentary to start off the extras. Though he's a little laidback, Cronenberg is articulate and obviously thinks a lot about the films he makes. His comments range everywhere from the historical origins of the story to the various CGI shots and how the actors prepped for their roles. There's also a short making-of featurette, but it pales in comparison to the 30-minute "master class" with Cronenberg recorded after a screening of the film at the AFI in October 2011. Here, Cronenberg goes into detail about the technical decisions that underlie a film like A Dangerous Method.
Perhaps I'm not the best judge of A Dangerous Method. I've read more Freud than the average moviegoer, and I love Cronenberg and all the actors involved. However, despite the fact that I loved the film, many viewers will be disappointed. It's a very talky film. That fits with a film about the "talking cure," but it won't please everybody. It especially won't please those who saw the trailer and were sold a film about kinky sex and psychoanalysis. Yes, Keira Knightley and Michael Fassbender get a little rough in the boudoir in a few scenes, but to call this an "erotic mindbender" as the prominent quote on the front of this Blu-ray says is overstating the case a bit.
A Dangerous Method probably won't win as many new Cronenberg fans as Eastern Promises, but the film shows that the director has talent to spare. The film itself is an interesting examination of a largely ignored part of essential twentieth-century history. Though the subject matter won't appeal to everyone, the superb performances by all involved make this one worth picking up.
You can't talk me out of it: A Dangerous Method is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Official Site