David Cronenberg made his reputation as a purveyor of the macabre and grotesque. He lifts the mundane rocks of every day life to expose the slimy horrors wriggling just beneath. He’s got an almost slavish devotion to meaty, sweaty, sloppy sexuality. So there’s a certain aura of expectation around his latest project, A Dangerous Method, where Cronenberg examines an incident that intersected the lives of Drs. Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. This was the birth of the psychoanalysis movement, where psychologists were duking it out over methodology, and even the slightest provocation could destroy their reputations and undo all their work. A Dangerous Method does a damn fine job at the onset, once you lift the Jung/Freud carapace, what’s left beneath could conceivably be the plot of an episode of “Gossip Girl.” That’s not to say that Cronenberg’s film is terrible; it’s just that I expected something more original or creative. And even with terrific acting — for the most part — and just a nice soupcon of historical factoids, the film’s storyline follows the same basic infidelity/jealous frippery you’d find on a soap opera.
A frothing madwoman is brought writhing and twitching by carriage to Dr. Carl Jung’s (Michael Fassbender) institute for observation. Jung decides to use this young woman, a Russian student named Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), as a guinea pig in his trial run implementation of “The Talking Method” — which would eventually enable thousands of lazy screenwriters to show someone lying on a couch expositioning their problems to someone wearing glasses. Like with most sciences, the method was developed by an older scientist, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and Jung was attempting to generate his own research towards his own theories on Freud’s concept. Jung’s wealthy young wife Emma (Sarah Gadon) suggests that Jung contact Freud to open a dialogue. This eventually led to a mentorship between the two men, and blah blah blah, now everything looks like a penis or a vagina.
For those of you expecting to fulfill your slash fiction fantasies of seeing two intellectual luminaries get their hot fuck on in early 20th century Vienna, I am here to crush your hopes and dreams. No, Freud doesn’t give anyone the Lewinsky with his trademark cigar. No, Fassbender doesn’t squat over anyone and give them Jung’s trademark “Hot Carl.” Keira Knightley gets spanked while spilling — well, trickling — out of a corset, which made most of the audience guffaw rather than sigh enticingly. As well they should have, because it is patently absurd.
Cronenberg didn’t write the screenplay — playwright Christopher Hampton developed the script from his own play The Talking Cure, which itself was derived from John Kerr’s book A Most Dangerous Method. The exchanges between Freud and Jung are occasionally droll, but otherwise, the plot is ridiculously boilerplate. Scrub off the Jung/Freud historical aspects, and basically it’s a girl bangs teacher story. You could explain it in 80’s song titles. Student is “Hot For Teacher.” Teacher is “Too Shy.” Meets his mentor who’s a “Cold Hearted Snake.” Teacher meets Freud’s patient Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), a former doctor who’s “Just A Gigolo.” Gross convinces Jung to have “Endless Love.” Jung finds his Student “Simply Irresistible,” takes her to “Funkytown.” Teacher realizes he’s “In Too Deep.” His wife finds out, says “It Takes Two,” and “I’ve Had The Time of My Life,” so “Stay.” Teacher tells Student “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.” Student takes a “Sledgehammer” to his reputation. Jung leaves. “Bad Medicine.”
And that’s all a shame because the acting’s very good. Fassbender has the hard job of playing straight man, and he manages to pull off that sausage-like tensile feeling that this straight-laced dude’s about to just explode. His passionate moments are only effective because he spends so much of the movie being so rigid. Mortensen shines as Freud, he’s just a spectacular bastard, literally oozing with arrogance while puffing on that goddamn cigar. Godon could easily be overlooked as Jung’s wealthy wife, but she makes you remember that those delicate ladies of the 1920’s sometimes carried derringers. Cassel is in the film briefly playing a bon vivant, a doctor who proclaims the sensuality of life and screws all his patients, how you should live without reservation. He’s the right man for the job, and you can literally see the juices running down his cheeks from the bite out of life he’s taken.
Keira Knightly starts off the film with such promise. It’s one of those borderline performances that dandles right around over the top and maddening perfect. Her facial contortions are where Cronenberg gets his grotesqueries. She practically breaks her own jaw with her madness, twitching and writhing and shrieking. It’s horrifying. But then, once Jung “cures” her, she quickly falls into “Carriage-drawn Keira,” which is how most filmmakers see her — a Bennett bearing a bonnet. It’s simply period romance, and so it’s hard to laud her performance when we’ve seen it before and with how remarkable she was when she was batshit crazy. Even her accent is understated, though people will probably attack her for it. I just was impressed she didn’t fall into the Count Chocula school of Eastern European Accents.
A Dangerous Method isn’t a bad film. It’s just a film we’ve seen before. Even with the decent acting and the occasional influx of grotesque, Cronenberg doesn’t manage to elevate his narrative above “Desperate Housewives” intrigue. All the interesting bits that he generates in the beginning of the film are quickly washed away by the generic speeches we always see of men in period haircuts grasping waifs about the shoulders and professing their admiration whilst standing in the English countryside. If Cronenberg gets recognized for this film, this ridiculous Kinsey by way of Gosford Park, it’ll be a shame, because his last two efforts have been far more fascinating.