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Freud and Jung go toe-to-toe in A Dangerous Method

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

Before psychiatry had rules: Jung (Michael Fassbender) with “patient” Spielrein (Keira Knightley) in A Dangerous Method.

Talk?" Even in her wild agitation — barely able to force out words, writhing in her seat — Sabina Spielrein's puzzlement is clear. But that is exactly what her new physician proposes — that she sit in a chair and he sit in a chair behind her and they talk about what might be causing such a state. And thus, in a Swiss hospital in 1904, is born the practice of psychoanalysis, the root of modern psychology/psychiatry and much of our understanding of the human mind. It's also the beginning of the relationship between Spielrein (Keira Knightley) and her doctor, Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), which will cycle through many stages and, according to the version of this real-life story told in David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, shape both the relationship between Jung and his idol/soon-to-be-mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and the development of psychological theory itself. It's a fascinating account and an enormously rich film, though in truth it works best when talk gets out of the way.

Freud had come up with the idea of "the talking cure" but had never actually tried it on a patient. When Jung does, succeeding in bringing Sabine's mania under control enough for her to begin studying psychoanalysis herself, the two men become colleagues and friends. Meanwhile, the sexual nature of Spielrein's symptoms and obsessions, Jung's colorless marriage to wealthy Emma (Sarah Gadon), and the perverse influence on Jung of pure-id patient Otto Gross (a delightful Vincent Cassel, stealing every scene he's in) push Jung and Spielrein toward an intense affair. (Being proper Europeans of their era, they couple half-clothed, although her masochism means a steady diet of enthusiastic flogging.) In this telling — Christopher Hampton based the screenplay on his own play, which was based on John Kerr's non-fictional account — Jung's relationship with Spielrein precipitates the differences and disagreements lurking beneath Jung and Freud's professional and personal dealings, leading to a dramatic split from which their bond never recovered and, in many ways, from which psychology itself is healing still.

Between unpacking the development of analysis, limning the mores and understandings of European society in the early 20th century, and filling out the intricate triangle between Spielrein, Jung, and Freud, Cronenberg has a lot to cover in a mere 99 minutes. That, and the screenplay's origin in Hampton's stage play, perhaps accounts for the movie's occasional exposition-itis and acute event condensation. When Mortensen first appears in his built-out nose and grayed temples as Freud, worries flutter about a full descent into school-play terrain—plot points ticked off, every conversation conveniently serving as a philosophical debate, etc. That the film doesn't take this turn is in large part a credit to the man behind the camera. It's difficult to reconcile the fact that this David Cronenberg is the same man who made the head-exploding horror flick Scanners. Never less than elegant, his direction makes subtle but astute use of camera, highlighted by a series of split diopter shots (google it) that place two people in the same frame at radically different depths, a perfect visual metaphor for the bonds and conflicts in the story.

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