David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method explores the birth of psychoanalysis and the turbulent relationships between Carl Jung and his mentor and father-figure Sigmund Freud and the disturbed Sabrina Spielrein.
Jung is treating Spielrein using Freud’s radical theories, but quickly succumbs to his own, innermost desires, starting a relationship with the troubled but brilliant Spielrein. This along with Freud’s preoccupation with the phallus (and sex in general) will eventually lead to the severing of their friendships, while changing the face of modern thought forever.
A Cronenberg film is always an intriguing proposition, he’s a director with a very interesting body of work (no pun intended), and with two very distinct periods. With the exception of Cronenberg’s female lead, the actors in A Dangerous Method are also of a very high calibre, both Michael Fassbender (Carl Jung) and Viggo Mortensen (Sigmund Freud), are clearly two of their generation’s most capable actors. So why oh why, was A Dangerous Method such a snooze fest?
Jung (Fassbender) deeply struggles with Freud’s assertions concerning sex. Jung longs to explore beyond mere sexual motivations, believing that there must be driving factors other than the sexual. But Freud rejects Jung’s theories as mysticism, as something which will only devalue their fragile field.
Freud’s theories, unsurprisingly, hang heavy over the film and the parallels to Freud and Jung’s relationship being the atypical, father/son dynamic, are explicit ie Jung can only escape his mentor’s shadow by killing him or more specifically, by producing his own thesis, which could potentially dethrone Freud and his theories, thus slaying his mentor metaphorically.
While seeing two of my favourite actors duel it out on screen was to a degree enjoyable, it also felt like a wasted opportunity. Firstly, Fassbender does a fine job of presenting the conflict in Jung, who’s torn between his love for his mistress and student, Spielrein, and his wife, but also the rather difficult relationship with his curmudgeon, father-figure, Freud.
The real disappointment is that Mortensen’s does very little other than chew cigars and impersonate Freud. It has to be said, that while Fassbender has most well-rounded character, I think Mortensen is the better actor, and certainly a more enjoyable screen presence, so it is such a shame that he has so little to do.
The film’s other significant weakness is Keira Knightley. Quite simply she isn’t a very good actor and no matter how enthusiastically she sticks out her jaw, her impression of mental health is only ever that, an impression. However, as the film progresses Knightly does become more tolerable, although that’s mainly because her character is side-lined, as the film’s central relationship -between Jung and Freud -takes centre stage.
Cronenberg’s technical execution is faultless, but I can’t help thinking that a documentary on Freud, Jung and Spielrein would have been a far more rewarding experience. Sadly, all the spanking in the world, won’t elevate A Dangerous Method above its inescapable mediocrity.