Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) is on the couch of the young psychoanalyst Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) — just as his patient, for now — telling him of her father’s physical abuse when she was four. He spanked her and, as she recalls, she liked it. Now she needs violence, or violent imagery, to achieve sexual pleasure. But when she masturbates, Sabina tells Jung, she feels something slimy, like a mollusk, pressing on her back. It’s a vision that summons nightmare memories of any film from David Cronenberg’s prime — Shivers or Rabid or The Fly or Naked Lunch — in which sexual anxieties manifest themselves as monster slugs or houseflies or cockroaches invading the mind and body of the tortured host.
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It happens that Cronenberg is only the director of A Dangerous Method, the fourth consecutive movie (after Spider, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises) that he has made from someone else’s screenplay. Christopher Hampton wrote the script from his play The Talking Cure, itself based on John Kerr’s nonfiction book A Most Dangerous Method. Yet this could be called a vampire movie, with Jung and his mentor, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), as bloodsuckers of the unconscious. “Do you think they know we’re on our way,” Freud says to Jung on their first trip to America, “bringing them the plague?” Psychoanalysts came to be known as shrinks, for the primitive tribal ritual of shrinking the heads of defeated enemies; Freud’s science was seen as fatal voodoo. “Shrink” also suggests Shreck, the German word for horror and the surname of the actor who played the Dracula character in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu.
I fear that if I stretch this horror-film argument too tautly, it will snap back in my face. For A Dangerous Method is also an example of the genre of speculative biography — exhuming famous corpses to examine the dirt under their fingernails — that recently gave birth to Anonymous and My Week With Marilyn. The big sordid question here: Did Jung break the code of ethics and have sex with his most famous early patient? Hampton follows historian Peter Loewenberg’s argument that Jung broke the physician’s covenant and became Spielrein’s lover. (Others wonder if Freud had an affair with his sister-in-law Minna Bernays, but she is only a minor character in this film.)
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Jung is Freud’s star pupil when he takes the case of Sabina, a brilliant young Russian Jew who would become one of the first prominent women psychoanalysts. A gentle but strict Swiss Protestant with a quiet, loving, wealthy wife (played with charm and concern by Sarah Gadon), Jung wrestles with his sexual demons, giving Sabina the rough sex she thinks she wants — binding her wrists, strapping her, the works. “Sometimes,” he says, “you have to do something unforgivable, just to go on living.” At the same time, he struggles to break from Freud’s essential tenet, that childhood sexual repression is the root of adult neuroses. Like Sabina, Carl must figuratively kill the father figure to achieve emotional independence.
The movie fingers Jung as a textbook example of Freud’s “return of the repressed.” At times he is a comic figure of neurotic propriety, obsessively salting and peppering his food at breakfast with his wife. (Aha! His life needs more spice!) To Sabina’s passionate virago — when he breaks off the affair, she stabs him in the face — he seems the callow swain, Jung at heart. He is also the stunted Christian confounded by Spielrein’s passion and Freud’s wry wisdom. As Freud says of Jung: “Put not your trust in Aryans.”
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And though the “venereal horror” of Cronenberg’s great movies is present here — Sabina and Jung’s sexual liaison will replay her father’s enticing brutality — it appears in domesticated form. The movie sports tailored suits and Mittel-European accents, and portrays Jung’s agonized sobriety and Freud’s courtly, corrosive wit as a tennis match of the mind (advantage Freud). Seen in that light, A Dangerous Method fits the contours of yet another, familiar genre: the year-end Oscar-bait drama, which provides a suave showcase for its urgent dialectic, elevated dialogue and world-class stars.
In his third consecutive Cronenberg film (after playing the righteous killers of A History of Violence and Eastern Promises), Mortensen is a happy surprise. Never has this tightly-wound actor seemed so relaxed in a difficult role; he is the charming papa Jung hates to overthrow but knows he must. Fassbender, renowned in art-house circles as the imperiously romantic Rochester of Jane Eyre and the sexual vagabond of Shame, tamps down his usual steely sensuality to make flesh of the conflicts a principled man feels for a troubled Circe.
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At first, Knightley has trouble with her character’s extremes and Russian accent; in the mad scene that opens the film, the viewer sees not through her into Sabina but rather the strenuous attempt of a pretty young actress to impersonate a lunatic saint. Later, as Sabina gains clarity and control, Knightley makes a lovely lover for Carl. If Sabina is a vampire, then she’s Edward Cullen, the creature who knows too much, to his Bella Swan, naive but game for a toxic twilight romp.
One shot encapsulates their affair, even as it reminds viewers that Cronenberg is not just the coroner of bodily horror but a master picturemaker. As Jung and Sabina lie in furtive rapture on a sailboat (that his wife has just bought him), the camera lingers high above them like a watchful God, and in slow, stately fashion closes in on the lovers. Framed by the boat’s narrow wooden sides, they might be in their wedding bed, or a dual coffin, and it wouldn’t matter to either member of this intoxicated couple. For the moment, passion is its own death and transfiguration.
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