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A Dangerous Method: Lost in Psychobabble

By Jim Rohner · December 5, 2011

Cronenberg and sex.  With past titles likeCrash, Dead Ringers, Videdrome and Rabid on his directorial resume, it's safe to say that Cronenberg and sexual subtext go together like peanut butter and jelly, CBS and broad comedy, or – if you will – a penis and a vagina.  But lately, the King of Venereal Horror has overhauled his public image by annexing the country of Dramatic Oscar Grab with A History of Violence and Eastern Promises.  Hints of Cronenberg's old glory (if glory you consider it) have shown through in those titles, but like so many Seth Brundles, it certainly seems as though the Canadian Baron of Blood has shed his past image and become a new entity entirely.

But, wait – what do we have here?  A Dangerous Method, you say?  An early 20th century period drama on the surface, below A Dangerous Method would appear to be the perfect center of a Venn diagram that allows Cronenberg to accent his arthouse credibility with his psychosexual probings.  After all, the film follows the relationship that's spawned between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), the Austrian psychologist who suggested all psychological issues are rooted in sexuality, and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), the young, Swiss psychiatrist who utilizes Freud's revolutionary "talking cure" to help a patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), work out her hysteria. 

Sabina's hysteria manifests itself in uncontrollable fits of laughter and stuttering that make her speech almost indecipherable.  Almost.  What Jung can draw from the young Russian is that ever since she was first beaten by her father at the age of 4, she's been sexually aroused at the aspect of humiliation.  Point for Freud's cool intellect. 

But at Freud's request, Jung takes on another patient – fellow psychiatrist Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel) – whose method of never repressing anything not only results in uncountable sexual encounters between he and his patients, but also in Jung's practice through osmosis.  Soon enough, the Swiss doctor is making regular visits to Sabina's apartment for the purposes of humiliating his half-nude patient by violently spanking her while she's tied to a bed.  Point for Gross's animalistic instincts. 

And thus, we receive both the lofty potential for a film mixing the old Cronenberg with the new and the subsequent crushing disappointment that comes from A Dangerous Method's execution.  Though its genesis begins with John Kerr's novel, "The Talking Cure," A Dangerous Method is most directly adapted from screenwriter Christopher Hampton's play, and it shows in all the worst ways.

Similar to 2008's Frost/Nixon, A Dangerous Method consists almost entirely of people talking and then talking about talking, but the difference is that the former was able to inject some emotional weight and personal stakes into the intellectual banter to which we're too often privy.  You needn't be an expert on stock trading to enjoyBoiler Room, nor an expert on baseball management to enjoy Moneyball, but the unrelenting scenes involving sterile psychobabble make a master's degree in psychology almost a prerequisite to enjoy or understand the stakes that A Dangerous Method attempts to offer up.  Mortensen and Fassbender are spectacular both individually and in contrast to each other – the former calculated and confident in his prestige, the latter constantly teetering on the edge of cracking – but even Oscar-worthy performances cannot make up for the fact that there's no distinct reason to care about the subjects being discussed or the people discussing them.

With some anomalies, Cronenberg's films largely can neither be considered warm nor easily accessible, but even in a film as macabre as Crash, there was a sense of personal intimacy and even humanity.  Nowhere is it written that tackling clinical issues required the same sense of clinical coldness from the director, yet Cronenberg shows no flair in the adaption nor any reason to believe that this particular story demanded to be told through moving pictures.  In the end, potential gets lost under the weight of a film caught up so much in telling us why it's important that it never takes the time to actually show us.