Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Dangerous Method

Method Of Psychosexual Pre-War Modern Love

Keira Knightley as Sabina Spielrein and Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung in David Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method". 
Sony Pictures Classics

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
ay, November 23, 2011

In theaters today in New York City and Los Angeles, David Cronenberg's period drama "A Dangerous Method", which charts the strong relationship between early 20th century psychiatrists Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, and their shared effect on a patient's sexual behavior, is a rather tepid affair, more staid than stimulating, more sleep-inducing than thought-provoking.  The film represents a fine filmmaker's day off, after such strong recent efforts as "A History Of Violence" (2005) and "Eastern Promises" (2007).

Set just prior to World War I in Vienna and Zurich, Jung's patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) has endured continuous beatings and other physical abuse from her father but admits she likes it.  Sabina gets aroused when her father spanks her.  She masturbates immediately afterwards, she says to a stubborn Jung (Michael Fassbender), a repressed married man.  Jung is constrained by his reticence to be sexually adventurous with his wife and to fully explore the depths of his own desires and sexual impulses.  There's tension between Jung and Sabina, and Jung's attraction and repulsion to Sabina is further accentuated by the id of a visiting scholar (played with relish by Vincent Cassel) and the ego of Freud (Viggo Mortensen), who believes there's a method of therapy and diagnosis of sexual relations that could explode the boundaries of patient-doctor relations and complicate matters where Sabina is concerned.  A dissatisfied Sabina seeks Freud's help and draws he and Jung into an intense psychosexual realm.

Dressed in one scene like the lawns from "Last Year At Marienbad" and toned and flavored like something from Masterpiece Theater, "A Dangerous Method", based on John Kerr's book "A Most Dangerous Method" and Christopher Hampton's play "The Talking Cure", is strait-jacked in its period and grounded by its subject matter.  The film suffers chiefly from straining too hard to convey any serious exploration of its issues of psychology and sex -- issues which should have leapt off the screen and made for fertile and intriguing discussion.  In attempting to uncover and heal the psychosexual personality of an abused woman (or man) the film ends up more like unintended comedy than compelling drama.

Jung and Freud come across less as deep thinkers and psychiatrists than they do stiff pieces on a cerebral chessboard.  Through their actor inhabitants they communicate with little at stake it seems, other than seeing who won't break their serious veneer first.  (Between Mr. Mortensen and Mr. Fassbender it's the latter who comes closest to doing so.)  The interplay between these fine actors is good but not great.  Based on a true story of the series of events over a 10-15 year span, the Jung-Freud connection -- that of master and mentor, of son and father-types -- is only briefly explored.  The complexity and subtleties in their relationship, especially for these two powerhouses of psychiatry, is oddly subdued and mannered.  We aren't treated to enough of their interactions, at least those beyond the surface.  The film spends more time, at least initially, on Sabina, a Russian-born and raised 19-year-old who has fixations and obsessions with her anal area, grasping at a salaciousness and sensation muted by the film's mercifully slow pace and subplot involving Jung's wife.

The effect of watching "A Dangerous Method" through to its entirety is to come away feeling empty and removed from its events.  The film is self-alienating through its lack of engagement, and Mr. Hampton's script and the film's overall direction are void of bite or conviction.  Situations that are supposed to be riveting or even titillating are rote, dry and uninteresting.  As such, "A Dangerous Method", which also lacks Mr. Cronenberg's typically visceral and lurid flourishes, is akin to watching paint dry.  I didn't grasp where the director was going in depicting the true events and when the end came what was supposed to be memorable was forgettable.  

As for the acting, Mr. Mortensen, the director's reliably great acting master, admirably does what he can to keep Freud from being a bore.  Mr. Fassbender, who has had a fine year on the big screen turns in the weakest performance of his four film characters in 2011, his urgent, immediate disposition defined by Jung's wide-eyed intensity.  The performance looks and feels like method work itself rather than an embodiment of the character that reaches the audience. 

On the big screen I didn't gain a greater interest or enhanced understanding of the complex issues these two friendly rivals pontificate on, for I was overwhelmed and distracted by the cloying, overreaching acting by Ms. Knightley, who single-handedly stops the film in its tracks, her changing accent, her gestures and paroxysms more laughable than authentic.  It's a shame, because Ms. Knightley has done some good, even arresting work in the past, but her role as the disturbed Sabina in "A Dangerous Method" is simply too theatrical, matching the actor's stage background to a T.  It's pure frolic and detour, as is Mr. Cronenberg's underwhelming film.

With: Sarah Gadon.

"A Dangerous Method" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for sexual content and brief language.  The film's running time is one hour and 39 minutes.

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