November 23, 2011



A DANGEROUS METHODWatch It At Home – A Visit to Dr. Cronenberg’s Clinic


Throughout his career, David Cronenberg has been fascinated by twin compulsions:  the aberrant and the repressive.  The former was at the forefront of what are still his most celebrated films a quarter-century later, squishy biological horror movies like Videodrome and The Fly; later, he concentrated more on the demons inside, in pictures like M. Butterfly and A History of Violence.  It may have been inevitable that at some point he would be drawn to a story about the actual historical figures who created our modern paradigms of unacceptable impulses and their control, and A DANGEROUS METHOD is that story.  Unexpectedly, though, it’s Cronenberg’s driest and perhaps least satisfying film.

Based on the play The Talking Cure by screenwriter Christopher Hampton (itself based on a nonfiction book by John Kerr), Dangerous Method replays the complicated relationship among Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), who became a patient and colleague to both (and Jung’s mistress).  Jung was an early follower of Freud’s controversial theories about the roots of psychological disturbance and the psychoanalytic techniques he developed to understand and control them; Spielrein, abused by her father, was afflicted by hysteria and came to Jung for treatment.  She was deeply troubled but also brilliant, and she eventually became a psychiatrist herself.  During the period when she was being treated by Jung and also studying psychiatry, she and Jung entered into a sexual relationship that seems to have largely sado-masochistic in nature.

Meanwhile, Jung was chafing against some of Freud’s most fundamental principles.  Freud believed psychoanalysis only existed to illuminate a patient’s problems, that there was no “cure,” while Jung felt people could truly be changed with treatment.  Jung also had a deeply-held interest in the spiritual and paranormal, outraging Freud, who was having enough trouble getting the establishment to recognize psychoanalysis itself as a real science, without religion or the supernatural getting in the way.  These issues, along with Freud’s arrogance and what both would have called Jung’s Oedipal complex, led to a gradual disengagement and then outright conflict between them.

All of this could well be the stuff of great drama, but that’s not the way Cronenberg and Hampton approach it in Dangerous Method.  The film is very deliberately presented in a placid, carefully composed style (the lovely cinematography is by Cronenberg’s usual collaborator Peter Suschitzsky) that is probably meant to ironically comment on the wild emotions of these characters whose aim in life is to bridle such impulses in others–but the style seems all too appropriate for the film’s tone instead.  Both Fassbender and Mortensen give accomplished, intelligent, but bland performances that are odd under the circumstances.  (Whether by chance or not, Fassbender plays the character with sexual transgression issues in the about-to-open Shame, and there he does a spectacular job of revealing the emotional torture beneath a flat exterior.)  Although Knightley has been encouraged to accentuate the symptoms of her neurosis to an almost comical extent (strangely, she’s also the only person in the cast to speak with an accent), it’s a relief when she’s on screen simply because she gets to express some feelings that go beyond the intellectual.

The film, which runs a spare 99 minutes although it carries its characters over a busy decade of their lives, also feels sketchy and superficial, as though there should be footnotes running along the bottom of the screen to explain the theories and historical incidents referred to glancingly in the dialogue.  Although the movie makes it clear that Sabina enjoys the physical violence Jung inflicts on her, we have no idea whether he gets sexual satisfaction from it as well, and his relationship with his wealthy wife Emma (Sarah Gadon) has no dimension.  We meet Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), yet another crazy shrink who is both colleague and patient, but are never made to understand whether Jung truly believes Gross’s philosophy of unbridled sexual impulse.  Freud is an even more undeveloped character, defined only by his ideas, his chomping on (phallic?) cigars and his growing resentment of Jung.

A Dangerous Method feels both overly polished and hastily drafted, frustrating in its depiction of intellectual concepts without emotion.  It’s as though Cronenberg, approaching the root of his own cinematic obsessions, was compelled to take a step back, unable to face a diagnosis of his art.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."