$7.25 ticket on a scale of $0 to $13.50
“A Dangerous Method,” which was screened recently at the New York Film Festival, is less than the sum of its parts. Directed by David Cronenberg and based on the eponymous book by John Kerr, Christopher Hampton’s screenplay is almost totally devoid of comic relief. It could use some. What little it gets is clearly unintentional.
The 99 minute drama proposes to tell the story of pioneering psychiatrists Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). It actually tells the story of Carl Jung and Sabina Spielrein, a wealthy, beautiful, and intelligent young Russian Jewess played ably by Keira Knightley. Skein has it that Spielrein was Jung’s seminal psychoanalytic patient, a girl brought in great distress to the Swiss hospital where Jung was employed as a physician dealing with mental disorders in 1901. Pic covers the period from then to 1916. Epilogues are consigned to title cards. Freud, who played the pivotal role in the development of psychoanalysis, is a supporting character. It’s too bad, because he conveys far more than Fassbender, whose performance seems restrained to the point of constipation. Maybe it’s the writing.
Plot is actually the progress of two intersecting love triangles: Jung, his wife, Emma (Sarah Gadon) and Sabina in one and Jung, Sabina, and Freud in the other. For those with prurient minds, Jung, Sabina and Freud do not have more than an intellectual affair.
Jung, an Aryan Swiss, has it easier than Freud, the Viennese Jew. Jung also has a wealthy wife, which makes his progress less harrowing than Freud’s. The latter is ever conscious of anti-Semitism and fears that abandoning the empirical for the spiritual in psychoanalysis will discredit it. Jung veers off into the spiritual, if not the occult, leading to a break with Freud. All of this is well known.
But before Jung goes off the rails, he brings Sabina back from a psychotic break and encourages her to enroll in medical school, where she becomes a star pupil. In the course of his treatment of her, he discovers that her father hit her and humiliated her regularly when she was a child and that she became sexually aroused by it. In other words, she is a natural sub in a Dom/sub relationship. Maybe this was a big deal shortly after 1901, but nowadays it is a tad ho-hum. Go to “Paddles,” for crying out loud. Sabina’s arousal over the humiliation was the source of her psychosis. She felt dirty and worthless for liking it.
Guess what? A hop, skip, and a jump later Jung is whipping Sabina, who is getting off on it, and the two of them are in the midst of a torrid affair — or at least as torrid as “A Dangerous Method” can conjure. “Nine 1/2 Weeks,” this is not.
Nowadays, Jung would lose his license to practice medicine and probably face prison time for becoming sexually involved with a patient. Back then all he faced was guilt and two competing campaigns by his wife and by Sabina to keep him. The fact that he seriously endangered Sabina’s stability by engaging in and then breaking off their affair is barely addressed.
Pic’s payoff does not entirely surface in the final reel of action. Jung is clearly on the verge of a nervous breakdown in 1916 as he receives his final visit from Sabina. She is pregnant with her new husband’s child. Jung says that the baby ought to have been his. Sabina agrees. Potential dashed on the rocks of bourgeois morality! Good Heavens! Some of this is too trite for words.
Title cards at the end bring the stories of Sabina, Freud, and Jung to their historic conclusions. The latter two are well known and need not be dealt with here. Suffice it to say that Sabina went on to become one of the most prominent psychiatrists of the Soviet Union before meeting a bad end in the Nazi invasion of 1941.
Tech credits are adequate. One could rave if pic were not such a dirge. Credit goes largely to Knightley, whose Russian accented English is most credible, and whose performance is well above par, and to Mortensen for reasons already addressed. Fassbender sleepwalks through the picture. Cronenberg’s direction is technically proficient but dramatically lacking, as is the screenplay. Cutting, shooting, and sound recording are workmanlike.
Pic carries an “R” rating largely for explicit sexual situations. Don’t take the kids unless they have trouble sleeping.