While the multiple BAFTA-winning The Artist is a triumph of reticence, A Dangerous Method appears to champion verbosity. I have seen both films in quick succession, and am left with the impression that A Dangerous Method’s scriptwriter seems unaware that, remarkably, brevity is more effective than redundancy.
A Dangerous Method, adapted by Christopher Hampton from his own play, focuses on the origins of the ‘Talking Cure’, the birth of psychoanalysis and the relationship between Carl Jung [Michael Fassbender] and Sigmund Freud [Viggo Mortenson]. The catalyst in their falling out was Jung’s patient, the Russian Sabina Spielrein [Keira Knightley]. With the backdrop of pre-first World War Europe, Spielrein is ‘cured’ by ‘The Talking Cure’, proceeds to be Jung’s (spanked) mistress, and later becomes a renowned psychoanalyst herself.
Jung and Freud become friends around the same time as Jung takes on Spielrein as his patient and then lover. They later clash over both methodology and ethics, and Freud’s entrenched belief that sex and sexuality are life’s driving force and underpin all human behaviour.
In the template of the Hollywood film tradition, there are clashes, conflicts and differences besides that of the principle plot, that of Freud vs. Jung. Vienna (Freud) comes up against Zurich (Jung), wives are pitched against mistresses, the repressed and self-contained (Jung) collide with the hysterical and expressive (Spielrein).
These clashes and contradictions do not make A Dangerous Method a riveting watch, however. This is a clinical, detached and dull film. Even the spanking and sadomasochism is not enough to inject excitement (what Jung gets from this is a complete enigma). Perhaps the stagey feel reflects the film’s origin in a play. Knightley’s performance, replete with bodily contortions and grotesque jaw jutting, may well be true to historical facts of the original case, but truth does not always equal authenticity. Except perhaps for Jung’s long-suffering wife, it is difficult to feel empathy for any of the characters, which makes the viewing experience empty, vacuous and deeply unsatisfactory.
Despite his critics, it is difficult to imagine the world without Freud and his writings. Yet, surprisingly few films have been made on the man, primarily Hitchcock’s Spellbound and Huston’s Freud: The Secret Passion. Thus, I welcomed Cronenberg’s arrival in this sparse field, particularly his attempt to focus on just one aspect of Freud’s life, his relationship with Jung. Yet, this is certainly no ‘biopic’ of either man, and the film does not seem to add significantly to our understanding of either, or indeed Spielrein. More on her would have been welcome – she became a well-renowned and influential psychoanalyst in her right before being killed by the German SS in 1942 – though not depicted by Knightley, whose irritating performance was compounded by the choice to imitate Spielrein’s Russian accent. It felt strange and inexplicable that she adopted a ‘foreign’ accent while Fassbender and Mortensen spoke without Germanic inflections.
Freud’s establishment of ‘a universe of discourse’ has since affected psychiatric methods as much as it has planted the seed for the spread of folk psychology. While communication is plentifully represented in the film, it is mostly clichéd discourse about dreams, desires, and repression.
Of course, with a film that focuses on the ‘Talking Cure’, verbosity might be permitted. Indeed, it is to be expected. However, A Dangerous Method feels weighed down by its dialogue, and perversely represses the narrative rather than liberating it. As the inventor of the psychoanalytic hour, Freud used the voice as a flashlight into the psyche. The reality of the unconscious was deemed possible through a combination of free association, dream interpretation, transference, and resistance. Thus, something could appear that was not there before. This was not my experience of A Dangerous Method, unless you consider irritation, boredom and disappointment appearing where I had hoped for revelation, entertainment and enlightenment.