Thursday, December 29, 2011

A surprisingly safe "Dangerous" movie

It features lots of interesting period-piece trappings, but David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method is an unsatisfying piece of work.

In David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method – an adaptation of a Christopher Hampton play called The Talking CureMichael Fassbender plays Carl Jung, Viggo Mortensen portrays Sigmund Freud and Keira Knightley takes on the role of Sabina Spielrein.

Jung and Freud presumably need no introduction; Spielrein on the other hand, may not be familiar to most audiences. She was a patient of Jung’s who went on to become an analyst of some repute and who also was one of Jung’s mistresses – at least according to Cronenberg’s talky period piece.

Try as I might, I seldom got past the sense that all three actors were playing characters rather than deeply inhabiting them, an impression that’s reinforced by the fact that Jung, Freud and Spielrein eventually become advocates for different – if overlapping – views of human behavior.

The screenplay, which was written by Hampton and based on a book by John Kerr, revolves around an interesting conflict, although the movie tends to make its clash of ideas seem less than urgent. I’ll risk a bit of reductionism to put it this way: Freud insisted that sex was at the core of human behavior. Jung believed there was more to humanity than sex; he affirmed what he saw as humanity’s inherently religious impulses.

A Dangerous Method might be the least Cronenberg-like of recent Cronenberg movies, a stylistically straightforward piece that sprinkles conversations (some vaguely interesting) over a variety of Swiss and Austrian locations, many shot by cinematographer Peter Suschitzky with tasteful rigor.

The movie’s sense of caution comes as a bit of a surprise because sex (and its importance) lies at the heart of the drama, as well as at the core of a growing conflict between Jung and Freud, who – for a time – thought Jung would inherit his mantle as head of the psychoanalytic movement.

Cronenberg fans needn't totally dismay; the movie is not without a bit of kinky behavior. As it turns out, Knightley’s Spielrein achieves her greatest sexual kicks by being spanked, a pleasure Jung obligingly provides, although he seems determined to show that he’s not having a good time doing it.

Jung seems to be torn between a conformist commitment to his marriage (perhaps made easier by the fact that his wife was wealthy) and the unleashing of his more libidinous drives.

Although I had difficulty totally buying either Fassbender or Mortensen, neither has the annoying impact of Knightley, who enters the picture screaming as she’s being carried into Jung’s hospital in Zurich. In portraying Spielrein’s hysteria, Knightley juts out her jaw and contorts her facial muscles as if her body is being jolted by high-voltage shocks.

I don’t know if this is a “realistic’’ portrayal of severe hysteria, but I do know that in movie acting suggestion sometimes can be more powerful than demonstrative assertion. Put another way, Knightley’s performance may drive you a little crazy.

The story is not without political overlay: An increasingly concerned Freud fears that Jung’s interest in such matters as mysticism will undermine the scientific aura that's essential to the acceptance and growth of psychoanalysis.

These arguments too often make it seem as if the movie exists to articulate various points of view rather than to deeply probe the nature of its characters. At one point, though, Vincent Cassel shows up as Otto Gross, a brilliant psychoanalyst who believes all repression represents an unhealthy limitation of freedom. Cassel's welcome presence pushes the movie away from the neatly intellectualized debate between Freud and Jung.

Of the movie’s trio of principals, Mortensen probably provides the most interesting interpretation. His Freud has a deep and cagey sense of self-assurance – at least as it applies to the psychoanalytic domain over which he presides. A Dangerous Method, however, really has more to do with Jung than with Freud, who is absent from long stretches of the movie.

Maybe that’s why Mortensen’s performance wasn‘t enough to make me buy into A Dangerous Method, a movie that seems to unfold on a distant planet where talk about sex and dreams tends to become absurdly dispassionate. In the introduction to his book, Kerr talks about the ways in which Freud and Jung became the first thinkers to live with “that peculiarly intense burden of self-reflection that distinguishes the psychology of modern man.”

Maybe, but intense self-reflection isn’t necessarily the best place to begin a drama, and neither Cronenberg nor Hampton has been able entirely to liberate the material from the confines of the stage – other than by ensuring that the film’s conversations take place against a variety of elegant European backdrops.

In a time when the talking cure seems to have been supplanted by the dispensation of pills, the issues in A Dangerous Method don’t readily spring to life. They seem to swirl inside the embryonic and insular world of psychoanalysis, which – at least in this outing – provides no satisfying dramatic conclusion.

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