By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist September 2, 2011 at 1:24AM
The recent career of David Cronenberg has been an interesting thing to watch. Having made his name with a very particular, icky brand of fetish-happy body horror, he hasn't dipped back into that well for a decade now, preferring instead to take his obsessions and use them to spice up what in other hands could be standard fare. And generally speaking, it has worked well: "Spider," "A History of Violence" and "Eastern Promises" all have much to recommend them, all peculiarly Cronenbergian, but each pushing in a slightly different direction. But now he's made what, on the surface at least, might seem to be his biggest departure to date: a period piece, based on a stage play (one of several in Venice this year -- have movies rediscovered theater as a source of material?), that examines the relationship between the two major forefathers of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.
Of course, the elements that might seem to mark this as a real departure for the Canadian helmer are purely cosmetic, but we'll come to that in a moment. First, the set-up: Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a young, mentally ill woman is brought to the hospital in Zurich where Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) works. She's clearly in a bad way, reduced to paralyzing fits of spasms and anxiety after years of beatings from her father. Jung uses the so-called "talking cure" (also the name of the Christopher Hampton play the film is based on, which starred Ralph Fiennes in London) pioneered, but seemingly never used, by Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), which uncovers a sexual heart to Sabina's problems. The method leads to a great deal of improvement and Sabina begins training as a psychoanalyst herself, and brings Jung to the attention of Freud, who becomes a kind of father figure. But the arrival of a renegade protege of Freud, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), and the continuing attentions of Spielrein, cause Jung to cross a line that can't be uncrossed.
Few filmmakers deal with sexuality -- proper, grown-up sexuality, not "can you have sex without falling in love?" -- like Cronenberg does, so in many ways a film like this is a natural fit, particularly considering an interest in psychoanalysis already shown in "Spider." As such, some might be surprised at how restrained the film is, bar a couple of spanking scenes and a sticky close-up of virginal blood. Instead, it's a film of ideas, one dominated by verbal exchanges, as you might expect considering its theatrical origins -- Cronenberg opens it up more successfully than Roman Polanski did with "Carnage," but it's certainly less cinematic than "The Ides of March" (which was also based, albeit very loosely, on a play). But where it does feel like a film authored by the director is in the control, the discipline with which it's put together -- one scene in which Jung conducts research on his wife Emma (Sarah Gadon) displays some of the best cutting of the year.
If you were to see only the first 20 minutes, however, you would beg to disagree. It's an unwieldy opening, dominated by what initially threatens to be a disastrous performance from Knightley. In fairness, it's a near-impossible part to pull off; when we first meet her (and she's the very first thing we see), she's a whirling ball of crazy, more a walking, spasming personified tic than a human being, and Knightley, seemingly unhinging her lower jaw like a Predator, is all mannerism at first. The effort is visible, and it's clear that she's acting rather than inhabiting the character, even if she's admirably free of vanity while she does it. Fassbender, in turn, seems to find it difficult to play off her, essentially playing a stern note and not much else.
Fortunately, things improve a great deal once Freud arrives. Mortensen (aided by probably the most significant nose prosthesis since Nicole Kidman's in "The Hours") is, as he so often is these days, tremendous, bringing a patrician wit and real pathos to the part. His arrival comes with the return of sanity to Sabina, and it helps the film no end. Once Knightley settles into the part, she's as affecting as she has been in most of her recent turns, her late-in-the-game pride at what she's achieved being particularly moving. Cronenberg is underrated as a director of women, and the film is as much a celebration of a bright, talented woman as it is about the men's battles over the early days of their new science.
As things continue, Fassbender is sometimes impenetrably stiff (as he probably should be), but he too gets a few moments in which to stretch his wings a little in the third act. The film retains the small, focused cast of the stage version, but the supporting players are strong; Cassel walks off with his scenes as the unrestrained id to Jung's ego and Freud's superego, while Cronenberg's new favorite Sarah Gadon (who'll return in next year's "Cosmopolis") doesn't have a great deal to do, but has a few nice moments of steeliness to flesh out the character.
All in all, it's a pacy, absorbing picture, and one of real substance (certainly more so than the enjoyable, but somewhat hollow "Eastern Promises"). But if anything keeps it from quite hitting the heights that it could, it's Hampton's scripting. It's not so much the uncompromising manner of the material -- an audience member could probably get by on the briefest knowledge of psychoanalysis, which in this day and age most have, and, while the dialogue is sometimes tortuously wordy, the cast are able to make it fly, with only one or two lines sounding clunky. It's more that Hampton can't quite stick the landing; Freud and Jung's feud over the latter moving into more radical, mystical territory isn't really adequately covered, while a break and then a resumption of the affair between Jung and Sabina kills the momentum of the thing.
Still, if the take-off and landing are a bit bumpy, most of "A Dangerous Method" is fearsomely smart; a grown-up film that doesn't forget to move you even as it fires up the synapses. Mortensen caps off a trilogy of perfect performances for Cronenberg (and is the film's best bet for award nods, we imagine), the other leads hold their own, at least after that awkward first reel, and it examines the creative and destructive elements of sexuality in a way that very few filmmakers would dare. While we hope that Cronenberg will kick off and play a little more loose the next time out, we're glad he decided Hampton's play was worth the effort. [B]