A Dangerous Method

A Dangerous Method (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

A hysterical woman, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), is taken by horse carriage to the clinic of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), hoping to be cured of her mental affliction. Psychoanalysis, though popularized by Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), is not yet considered an official form of treatment. By taking careful notes of Spielrein’s verbal accounts and eventual behavioral changes while using psychoanalysis, Jung and Freud become optimistic that psychologists will learn to embrace the value of the new concept.

“A Dangerous Method,” directed by David Cronenberg, aims to balance the science that contributed to the commercialism of psychoanalysis, the affair between Jung and Spielrein, and the professional chasm between Jung and Freud, but the picture fails to excel in any of them. Though the subjects are alluring on the surface, they do not have enough details. As a result, watching the picture is like reading a textbook that offers nothing but summaries.

Christopher Hampton’s screenplay only touches upon the various relationships superficially. For instance, while there are about three or four scenes where Jung sits about a foot behind Spielrein and asks her questions about her childhood and the point when she has come to discover her sexuality, the filmmakers’ decision to jump forward in time—several times and without warning—is, to say the least, careless. The picture inadvertently makes it look like psychoanalysis is a magical panacea. I was afraid that people who may not have a background in psychology would watch the film and assume that psychoanalysis itself is an effective cure. It is not.

Psychoanalysis, broadly speaking, is a form of treatment—one that is not universally accepted by many professionals back then or nowadays. It is accompanied by other techniques but it is not a cure. For some, it works; for others, it does not.

The film might have benefited from highlighting the flaws and intricacies of Jung and Freud’s methods, like not having a big enough sample size, instead of simply dropping a slab of answers on our plate and expecting everyone to know what makes a good scientific method. Jung and Spielrein’s relationship is mildly interesting, reaching high points when the camera zooms toward Spielrein’s face and she looks as if she is about to regress to her scary hysteria every time her advances are shut down.

Knightley does a wonderful job in playing a woman who is out of control. The way she contorts her lower mandible, accompanied by a barrage of ticks, made me feel very uncomfortable. On the other hand, there are times when I sensed that Fassbender is trying too hard in illustrating personal, romantic, and professional betrayal. While it is ultimately up to him to balance the subtle emotions, the screenplay is equally at fault since it does not spend adequate time in exploring each angle it pursues in order to provide necessary support for the story and the performers. Lastly, while Mortensen is successful in portraying Freud’s confidence and arrogance, we do not discover much about the character. The screenplay assumes we already know Freud, what he represents, and why he remains to be an iconic figure.

“A Dangerous Method” is relatively dry in tone and mood. It makes a lot of assumptions. Halfway through, I wondered if we were all better off reading a more informative book about Spielrein, Jung, and Freud in a library instead of having to sit through tired melodrama being stacked together like pancakes.

2 replies »

  1. Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood for this one, but there was just no way I came even close to liking this. The gonzo performance from Knightley was entertaining to watch, but felt more like something in its own movie, outside of this uber-serious, talk-heavy “drama”. Good review Franz.

    • Right. The screenplay should have had more focus. I felt as though it did not feel like a true period film, modernized, in a way, to get more audiences to like it or be more interested in it. The thing is, the subject and the people are already interesting. The story just needed to be told with enough energy, specificity, intelligence, and insight.

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