'A Dangerous Method': A time-travel visit to Jung and Freud

David Cronenberg has, in films as nutty as The Fly, as hallucinogenic as Naked Lunch, and as hauntingly fierce as A History of Violence, explored the way our subconscious works, the way we repress, and suppress, natural urges - the constant battle between the rational and the instinctive, the civilized and the wild.

So, A Dangerous Method, a movie about pioneer analysts Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, makes perfect sense. Cronenberg can time-travel back to early-20th-century Zurich and Vienna and see what the daddy and granddaddy of psychotherapy were up to then.

Well, Jung (Michael Fassbender, fresh from grappling with sexual addiction in Shame) seems to be up to his wire rims in ethical misconduct: He falls, as A Dangerous Method proceeds at its stately pace, for one of his patients. She is Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a savagely distressed Russian girl who's carried into the Swiss hospital where Jung works by two wards, wrestling, squirming, and doing weird Alien-like stuff with her lower jaw. This is a freaky thing to behold: Knightley's wildly physical rendering of a mentally unbalanced soul. I wonder if Cronenberg was thinking Alien, too, as Knightley elongates her chin in clenched horror - she's like the monster, the demon, that needs to be tamed, and Jung's the man for the job.

Meanwhile, across the Alps, Dr. Freud (Viggo Mortensen), Jung's elder, and mentor, is busy with his own writing and research at his Vienna home. There is a lot of epistolary action between the two - exchanges of mail, exchanges of ideas - and then an exchange of a patient, as Freud asks Jung to take a look at Otto Gross (Vincent Cassell), a wild card who preaches sexual freedom. It is in listening to Herr Gross' vigorous endorsement of fornication, of the liberation of the libido, that Jung - who is married (Sarah Gadon is the missus) - is pushed into his ill-advised affair.

A Dangerous Method is a strange beast. It's a beautiful-looking beast, certainly, shot in Cologne, Bodensee, and Vienna, with period clothes and accroutrements, realized with elegance by Cronenberg's longtime cinematographer, Peter Suschitzky. But apart from Knightley's loony gesticulations (which diminish as Sabina talks through her childhood traumas and masochistic urges, goes off to university, and seduces Jung), everyone is tamped down, talky, remote. Christopher Hampton, adapting his play The Talking Cure (itself based on John Kerr's novel, A Most Dangerous Method), offers up lots of intellectual discourse about psychoanalysis, and Fassbender and Mortensen look their most dignifed and scholarly as they bat this business back and forth.

But there's an icy chill, a detachment, to A Dangerous Method, too. Of course, there are no talking cockroaches (Naked Lunch), no naked steambath knife fights (Eastern Promises), and that may have something to do with why this all feels so un-Cronenbergian.

But it also feels distant, and clinical, in ways you wished it did not.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/.


A Dangerous Method

Directed by David Cronenberg. With Arndt Schwering-Sohnrey, Viggo Mortensen, Mignon Remé, Sarah Gadon, Vincent Cassel, Michael Fassbender, André Hennicke, Mareike Carrière, Keira Knightley, Franziska Arndt. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.

Running time: 1 hours, 39 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for sexual content and brief language).