In the midst of an excited conversation halfway through A Dangerous Method, Dr. Carl Jung exclaims to Dr. Sigmund Freud that “There’s so many mysteries, there’s so much further to go!”
That’s sort of how I felt about the latest offering from David Cronenberg that looks at Jung’s relationship with Freud and the woman who brought them together and eventually tore them apart.
I am a huge Cronenberg fan. He’s easily one of my ten favorite filmmakers of all time. For those unfamiliar, Cronenberg is one of the few directors that always seems to hit audiences full-on, never too timid to shy from anything. His career, which has spanned 40 years, has taken a number of twists and turns.
A Dangerous Method is the third film Cronenberg has made with producer Jeremy Thomas, a trio of films that might as well be considered Cronenberg’s “Sex Trilogy.” Both Naked Lunch (the thought to be unfilmable adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ difficult-to-follow book) and Crash (the 1996 James Spader-led film where people get their kicks from car crashes, not the Oscar-winning film that would come a day later) dealt with human’s exploring a number of different, strange and bizarre sexual tendencies. With Freud the topic of conversation in this most recent film, it could be considered a psychoanalysis of where it all comes from.
But back to my point. I use the quote from Jung to explain my feelings on the film because while I was help captive by most of the conversations between Jung (Michael Fassbender), Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and patient-turned-psychologist Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), I kept thinking there could have been more to it all.
The film was based off a non-fiction book of the same name by John Kerr, but Cronenberg’s 100 minute adaptation is clearly a piece of historical fiction. I’m sure someone who has actually read Kerr’s book would know better, but I have to imagine there’s much more to it all than we’re presented. Cronenberg’s film, while focused on the exact and specific narrative it wants to be, doesn’t stray far from the intellectual, psychoanalysis-based conversation and sensual, erotic cinematography that he wants to.
For a relationship that’s built up to be so strong (Jung describes Freud as a father figure) and so disastrous when it falls apart (a change in Jung’s persona is noticeable when he stops interacting with Freud) I kept wanting more and more interaction between the two characters, and Spielrein, than we were given. I wanted to know more and see more. It’s almost hard to say what was missing, but the entire time it felt like there was something that kept this from being the amazing film that it could have been. I wanted to get more out of the content for myself than I actually did. I wanted more stimulating conversation.
When I first learned Cronenberg was once again teaming up with Mortensen (they excelled greatly with A History of Violence and Eastern Promises) I was excited. To then learn Mortensen would be Freud, Fassbender would be Jung and that Vincent Cassel would make an appearance as the brilliant madman Otto Gross I was sold. While I’ve come out a little disappointed, it’s hard to find much wrong with the film.
A lot works with the film. Knightley’s performance has seemed to divide some crowds, but I happen to think she was amazing. It’s not an easy performance to watch and that’s totally on purpose. She’s hysterical and crazy, she contorts her face to demented proportions and gives one of the year’s best off-kilter performances. Cronenberg gets the most out of his actors and this was no exception. I really think his direction is to be credited for her success, along with her dedication. By nailing all the small nuances of facial gesticulation and bodily manipulation, as well as disturbed speech, it’s a pure maddening winner and one of her best performances yet.
The male leads also deserve their share of credit. Fassbender is really interesting as Jung and Mortensen is always reliable and satisfying as Freud. I do think that both of them are overshadowed by Knightley. Together, Fassbender and Mortensen bounce off one another’s charisma. They’re different performances but they work alongside each other very well. Add in Cassel’s maddening, interesting yet short-lived performance and there’s a barrage of good acting to carry along anything that might fall short.
A Dangerous Method remains to be a really worthwhile film that ultimately falls short of what I think was its intended goal. It’s disappointing because Cronenberg was clearly the best-suited director for such a project and could have cashed in on it all a bit more. He’s never been intimidated by an adaptation or subject matter before, and that’s certainly the case here, but something was missing. Something fell short. Something wasn’t right. It happens.