Movie Review: “A Dangerous Method” Worth Risking

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By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

Esoteric, a bit obscure and yet nonetheless absorbing, director David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method” chronicles what very well may be one of the earliest psychological dramas. Or more correctly, the first one occurring just after the terminology, now so common, came into use. Dr. Jung meets Dr. Freud and our libidos will never be the same.

It’s Zurich, 1904, and Sabina Spielrein, a horribly hysterical, young Russian woman is brought, completely fettered, to Dr. Carl Jung’s clinic in a last ditch hope that he might cure her. To the backdrop of his own, antithetically subtle uneasiness, the physician speculates aloud to his wife that this patient may be a candidate for the “talking cure.”

Let the analysis begin. We’ve seen such morbid memories and causes unearthed before, but perhaps never with such historical import. Oh…I don’t remember if good wife Emma (Sarah Gadon), pregnant with their first child, asks the pioneering physician if Sabina (Keira Knightley) is pretty, but you get the gist. See! Freud is right. It’s all about sex.

Well, in this case it is, kind of, maybe. But just to be sure, let’s put a call in to the illustrious Dr. Sigmund Freud, pontificating ad nauseam in his dark, Vienna office and smoking more cigars in a day than General Grant did in a week. Portrayed effectively by Viggo Mortensen, he becomes a pen pal and then a friend of the admiring adherent.

Still, though crouched right alongside Herr Doctor at the embattlements declaring their medical revolution, Dr. Jung, convincingly played by Michael Fassbender, has an opinion or two of his own. While it ultimately seems that Freud would rather he didn’t, in time it leads to a lively and edifying discussion. Voila! The footings for psychoanalysis are laid.

Making it a triangle, though not quite in the conventional sense, Sabina, as both a case history and one who also aspires to a career in the emerging psychiatry, becomes an integral catalyst to the doings. And yep, for all the noble talk of science and objectivity, before long “A Dangerous Method” adds a steamy love story to its highfalutin discourse.

While it is hardly as impossible as Freud’s “The Interpretation of Dreams,” viewers educated by Mr. Cronenberg’s film, adapted from John Kerr’s book by Christopher Hampton, might feel they deserve three credits toward a master’s degree in psychology. However, truth is the filmmaker probably had to dumb it down to make it accessible.

He must have, if I think I understand it. Expect intense conversations that begin with, “Yes, but if that’s so, it follows that…” To which the first claimant inevitably removes yet another layer of the onion skin that is our psyche. It can get pretty brutal, though no one in the theater I saw it in ran out screaming, “I don’t feel that way about my mother at all!”

The fascinating thing is, for all the upper crust ruminations and deep thoughts divulged, director Cronenberg, who made his bones in the shock-and-awe horror genre, manages a rather fluid, rarely staid scenario. Supported by some swell, mood-evoking sets with just the right, period-identifying appurtenances, the story achieves its deserved significance.

Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that society thought nothing of tossing its psychologically challenged population into dungeon-like institutions, never to be heard from again. In fact, we’re fairly assured that a fate not too much better might have befallen Sabina were it not for her upper middle class background and Dr. Jung’s interest.

As it is, a good deal of the treatments and theories, both then and still now, are pretty nightmarish. Such conditions are bound to prevail when almost half of your citizenry isn’t really sure if it wants to help its less fortunate numbers. Happily, there are moments in time when compassion clicks in folks and they realize the true meaning of civilization.

Such is the medical renaissance we are made privy to as Jung sets about not only to cure Sabina of her deep, dark demons, but to virtually change her emotional makeup. But aha, detracts Freud, this is where we good doctors separate. Nope, he says, cure yes, change, no…we are hardwired, for all intents and purposes, to the serial number we were issued.

Beats me, though I’ve no doubt professional and amateur shrinks alike will have a field day disagreeing to their hearts content As for the rest of us, I remind of the apocrypha attributed to Freud, whereas “Sometimes a cigar is just a good smoke.” Meaning it’s a safe bet I have no subconscious motive for recommending “A Dangerous Method.”

“A Dangerous Method,” rated R, is a Sony Pictures Classics release directed by David Cronenberg and stars Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley and Viggo Mortensen. Running time: 99 minutes

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