Wednesday Editor’s Pick: A Dangerous Method (2011)

by on September 29, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed Oct 6 at 6:00 and 8:30 at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]
*Gala Presentation


Early reports from Venice, Telluride, and Toronto are in, and David Cronenberg’s latest is far and away our most anticipated screening of the festival. Round-up of reviews after the trailer:



Stephanie Zacharek for Movieline:

Probably the most fun you’ll ever have watching a movie about Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud duking it out — and nurturing a deep-rooted but fragile friendship — in early 20th century Austria and Switzerland. In fact, when I first saw Viggo Mortensen done up in his trim little Freud beard, I nearly laughed out loud — not because he looked ridiculous, but because he looked so right. Mortensen has become one of Cronenberg’s go-to guys in recent years, and you can see why: Even in a period film like this one — a picture that runs the heavy risk of being ponderous and stiff — he can slip himself into the scenery with a “Don’t mind me, here in my Sigmund Freud getup” naturalness.


Fassbender’s facial features are so classically composed — he looks so preternaturally stable and trustworthy — that when you see him play a character torn between intellect and the sexual impulse, you understand the costs involved. And his exchanges with Mortensen’s Freud are among the movie’s greatest pleasures. He’s the straight man to Mortensen’s sly jokester. At their first meeting, Freud listens patiently as Jung outlines Spielrein’s symptoms in great detail. He offers one observation, which Jung rejects; he offers another that Jung also pooh-poohs. “Well,” he says, after waiting one patient beat, “perhaps it’s a Russian thing.” In A Dangerous Method Cronenberg takes this meeting of minds and finds the crackle in the connection. It’s never dull for a moment, which is an achievement for a movie about two guys who built whole therapeutic disciplines around the acts of talking and listening. Cronenberg is attuned to the inherent drama, and the pitfalls, in what these men did. As a filmmaker, he’s as good a listener as he is a talker.


Richard Porton for CinemaScope:

David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, with its curious tone pitched between placid costume drama and the threat of domestic horror, also seeks to rehabilitate the “talking cure” as a radical, even potentially incendiary, concept. Inspired by John Kerr’s A Most Dangerous Method, a study of the complex relationship between Carl Jung, his patient (and mistress) Sabina Spielrein, and Jung’s mentor, and eventual adversary, Sigmund Freud—and more directly based on screenwriter Christopher Hampton’s play The Talking Cure—Cronenberg tackles one of his favourite themes: the toll exacted by sexual repression and the danger, as well as frisson, of shedding the weight of such repression. Just as these themes were delineated with the aid of generic horror tropes in Shivers (1975), A Dangerous Method reveals the emotional violence that bubbles below the surface of Hampton’s witty repartee.



Daniel Kasman for MUBI:

This new phase of David Cronenberg’s films—I’m speaking of the move to classicism of A History of Violence and Eastern Promises—has taken an even more extreme and interesting turn in A Dangerous Method.  The film shocks with its sheer stateliness, its almost quiet abstraction of tumultuous melodrama. The stakes between the three in their bets of real and theoretical psychologies and attractions are exceedingly murky, the specifics of contentions and disputes professional and personal a matter of history rather than cinema, yet the mise-en-scène is clean, spare and unsparing, essential.  We get total visual lucidity charting, on the surface, underground battles.  (So I wonder: does this film have a subconscious?)


Battles and psychosexual sound like active descriptors, but A Dangerous Method has no atmosphere of pleasure or danger as Jung navigates between bourgeois infidelity, the mind and body of his patient, and Freud’s thoughts and affection—it is all witheld from the film in favor of crisp whites, uncluttered compositions, only cleanness and spareness, assured persons firm and stable in their time and place of this period picture.  The focus of every composition, often split across shared space in deep focus shots, are the physical presences of these people, how you are always aware of Fassbender’s face, always trying to figure its handsome, incomplete shape, Knightley’s angular, wretched skinniness, used so well in the film, and Mortensen’s fierce tranquility.  It is a movie of actors, personages, all poised, stately—and supremely melancholy. Sad, perhaps, that all that drives and defines them remains on the inside while society, and them a part of it, continues its inevitable course of surfaces; and the trio work, in a way unaware, at determining a way to color the world with what’s being restrained.


Geoffrey Macnab charts the history of Freud depictions in film for The Independent.

Fernando F. Croce
for The House Next Door:

The most classical film yet of David Cronenberg’s classical period, this portrait of the struggle between mind and body elegantly suggests a plethora of urges, addictions, and neuroses continuously churning under its fastidious period-piece veneer. The cerebral side is the relationship between earnest fuddy-duddy Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and sardonic silver fox Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) in the early 1900s; the visceral side comes in the contorted, seductive form of Sabine Spielrein (Keira Knightley), the young masochist whose initial hysteria grows even more provocative to the men of science around her as she comes to match their intellects and challenge the limits of their rationality. Working from Christopher Hampton’s play, Cronenberg outlines the archetypal bonds (mentor and pupil, doctor and patient, husband and wife) that comprise what one character describes as “the smooth workings of society,” and then proceeds to examine—not with Dead Ringers microscopes but with Age of Innocence opera binoculars—the itchy irregularities emerging in the creamy white skin of the characters. If it has a tendency to explicitly state its own themes, the film nevertheless unsettles with its lucid visions of release and repression: One can imagine the director putting the ruthlessly composed final image here side by side with the raucous abandon that closes Shivers, and daring us to tell which one is more horrific.


A pair of responses at Fandor:

David Cronenberg adapts Christopher Hampton’s play The Talking Cure with little effort to cinematize its stage-bound origins; all the action lies in Hampton’s exquisitely wrought dialogue that charts Carl Jung’s emergence from the shadow of Sigmund Freud. Viggo Mortensen admirably conveys Jung’s conflicting modes of quasi-Oedipal ambition and self-doubt in the face of Fassbender’s Freud, whose relaxed self-assuredness forms its own kind of tyranny. But it’s Keira Knightley who gives a brave if bizarre turn as Jung’s neurotic patient-turned-protégé/lover. Her initial appearance as a shrieking, chimp-faced wreck invites derision, but as Jung and Freud devise ever more sophisticated language to gloss over their primal jealousies and urges, Knightley’s oddball mannerisms bear witness to all the behavior that can’t be reduced to words. A great film about the violence inherent in human understanding.- Kevin B. Lee


AKA History of Sex. Distinctly Cronenbergian, remarkably restrained attempt to dissect the raging, willfully suppressed libido of one Carl Gustav Jung – in terms provided by his mentor, Sigmund Freud. The clash of intellectual titans is played out as a perverse theater of repression, momentary release and growing sense of irresolution. Keira Knightley provides a veritable twitch-a-ton of a performance that is so violently at odds with Michael Fassbender’s super-composed Jung (starched and scrubbed even while climaxing), that one has to admire Cronenberg’s shrewdness in casting the leading parts. Viggo Mortensen (a phallic cigar never leaving his mouth) makes for an almost fatherly Freud, in a surprisingly controlled and dignified turn – Michał Oleszczyk


Barbara Wurm for Sight & Sound:

For all the meticulous historical framing, Cronenberg’s exploration of the irrational, and of psychoanalysis as the radical turning point in the history of the mind, offers all kinds of joyful and painful transfers into the world (and body) we live in. There’s something awesome about the delicate yet utterly open way Jung, his wife (Sarah Gadon, blissful) and his patient/mistress/true love/analyst Spielrein handle the rise and dismantling of relationships.


The same holds true for the triangle between Jung, Spielrein and Freud, played out on the writing grounds of psychoanalytical theory. It’s a relief to return to a time when dignity and graceful manners were not considered incompatible with (to use our vocabulary) ‘hardcore’ sex.


Even more comforting is the fact that the portrayal of Spielrein as the only character with credibility in bed and in psychoanalysis (as opposed to Jung’s esoteric erring and Freud’s asexual existence) makes A Dangerous Method that rarity, a film with a charming feminist touch.


Andrew O’Hehir for Salon:

You wouldn’t know this was a Cronenberg film if you didn’t know it going in, and I offer that neither as praise nor criticism. Even as it deals with sexual perversity and severe mental illness, “A Dangerous Method” is a restrained and elegant costume drama driven by characters, language and ideas, not violence or outré imagery. This movie offers further evidence of Cronenberg’s late-career ambition to become something like an old-school Hollywood director, who works to help his actors tell the story in the most economical fashion and doesn’t try to imprint an auteurish signature on the picture. Nobody especially remembers Cronenberg’s early movies for their acting, but this one very much belongs to Michael Fassbender and Keira Knightley, who are both superb as the parties to a tortured love affair that would have a profound if peculiar effect on cultural and intellectual history.


I want to see “Dangerous Method” one more time before it hits theaters, but my initial take is that it’s a handsome and stimulating film, noteworthy more for its terrific acting and provocative ideas than for any kind of dark Cronenbergundian genius. Partly that’s the elegant European locations and period costumes, photographed gracefully by Cronenberg’s longtime cinematographer, Peter Suschitzky, and partly that’s the literary-academic-historical nature of the project. Still, this movie has an erotic, psychoactive undertow it wouldn’t have with, say, Clint Eastwood at the controls, and Fassbender and Knightley may be the year’s most potent cinematic couple.



Pasquale Ciccheti is “perplexed,” for Reverse Shot:

I’ve heard mixed reactions among the critics as well. On one side: verbose, stiff, pointless. On the other: subtle, elegant, sophisticated. Again, I find myself in the middle. Basically, A Dangerous Method follows the tradition of the historical romance genre. Building upon its solid theatrical roots, the narrative relies on a strong dramatic triangle to hold it together. The script is smooth, balanced, and well paced, even if the actors interpreting it tend to overindulge themselves in the “periodness” of the mise-en-scène (though, truth to be told, Keira Knightley did not deserve her boos—but then, it’s well known that audiences in Venice can be cruelly snobbish).


What troubles me more than the performances, though, is that the film seems to be constantly desperate to find a high-minded intellectual legitimization for everything that happens onscreen, most of which revolves around the attraction between Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his patient, Sabina Spielrein (Knightley), As Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel) manages to persuade Jung to cheat on his wife, for example, the film does its best to persuade us that Jung is actually making a theoretical point against Freud (Viggo Mortensen). As in: the endless possibilities of a freed unconscious versus the suffocating restraints of a repressed sexuality. Now I do not claim to be an expert on the subject, but reducing the conflict between Freud and Jung to a discussion of bourgeois sexuality seems like oversimplifying a bit. Other potential themes (anti-Semitism, the impending Great War) are scattered as hints throughout the narrative, but are never truly explored. So, at the end, I wonder: Is that a strategy to dignify the romantic drive of the plot? But then, why not just downplay the love story and spend more time developing the intellectual premises of the whole affair between the two doctors? Most of all, what has Cronenberg to do with all that? My final impression is that the film, despite its exquisite technique, is too concerned with living up to its characters’ names to develop a strong perspective of its own. The feeling of “pastness” may be effective, the jargon and the psychoanalytical references may be accurate, the details may be vivid—but nonetheless A Dangerous Method feels almost harmless. And not even Viggo’s perfectly held cigar can make up for that.



Amy Taubin for Film Comment:

Melodrama, a mad profusion of professional lingo, and whips in the bedroom notwithstanding, A Dangerous Method is a spare, if not austere movie, Bressonian in its ellipticality and compression of time. The passage of months, even years, are often marked by an abruptly closed or opened door. Howard Shore’s score, poised between late Beethoven and early Wagner is discreetly expressive. What makes the form of the film as radical as its underlying subject—Freud’s concept of the unconscious—is the monkey wrench Cronenberg throws into the construction of two shots, three shots, and reverse-angle POVs (or shot/countershot sequences as they are customarily termed). In recent movies, Cronenberg has favored a somewhat wide-angle lens that flattens space, making the actor in the foreground seem disproportionately large in comparison to the actor in the background. Most directors who use wide-angle lenses try to cover this distortion through movement. Here, however, particularly in the “talking cure” scenes, Cronenberg employs the disproportion to reveal something about subjectivity: how one’s self-involvement can dwarf one’s perception and comprehension of the other, or vice versa. A Dangerous Method thereby becomes a tragic study of the absence of true reciprocity in human relations.


If the film’s opening image is of Spielrein, the closing shot and the last line belong to Jung. Spielrein, who is married and pregnant, has come to say goodbye. Oddly, it’s the first time in the film that we get a glimmer that this was indeed a serious love affair for him as well as for her. They are sitting lakeside in the Jung family’s backyard. As Spielrein starts to leave, Jung pulls himself out of his near catatonic depression long enough to offer an explanation for his abandonment of her: “Sometimes you have to do something unforgivable, just to be able to go on living.” (In real life, the last letter Jung wrote to Spielrein ended with that line.) It is an achingly sad, romantic moment, but after I left the theater, I couldn’t help thinking about all the unforgivable compromises Jung would make as he sat out World War II by the side of a Swiss lake. This is a major film, for sure.


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