A Dangerous Method may seem atypically serene for a David Cronenberg film but his restrained approach suits the material. Essentially this adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s play The Talking Cure and John Kerr’s book A Most Dangerous Method is a series of conversations between four of those involved in the start of the psychiatry movement. Yet all Cronenberg’s thematic concerns are present. They are verbalised rather than shown onscreen which may annoy those who wish Cronenberg would start making ‘body horror’ movies again. A Dangerous Method is about the things people repress in order to function effectively within society and the emerging approaches to treating them when find they are unable to cope. This contrast between the very formal setting and people’s inner thoughts is more profound precisely because Cronenberg allows them to explain how they feel without recourse to dream sequences or such like.
The film begins in 1904 with Jung successfully treating a young woman named Sabine Spielrein (Keira Knightley) using Sigmund Freud’s ‘talking cure.’ Jung allows her to assist in his experiments and the two eventually become lovers fulfilling her need for sado-masochistic pleasure. A fractious relationship develops over the next decade between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Freud (Viggo Mortensen) with both men finding disappointment in the other. The first meeting between protege and mentor goes congenially enough but their differences are already apparent. Jung objects to Freud’s inflexibility and his refusal to deviate from his theory about sex being the root cause of human behaviour. Jung wants to improve people not see them as they are. “There are so many mysteries; we have so much further to go.” A wild card entry arrives in the form of rampaging poet Otto Gross (Vincent Cassell) who insists nothing should ever be repressed regardless of the consequences.Spielrein, stunningly played by Knightley in a performance many have derided but I found to be her best work yet, also embarks on a career as a psychiatrist and if nothing else A Dangerous Method should see a reassessment of her contributions to psychoanalytical theory.
Cronenberg’s movies have always taken a clinical interest in the clash between the body and the self and the possibility of transformation. A Dangerous Method continues in this vein. Oddly enough it recalls not his previous incursion into period drama territory M Butterfly (1993) but his underrated William Burroughs adaptation Naked Lunch (1991) which is also about an emerging group of thinkers, the Beat Generation. Admittedly that film saw people act out their most inner desires, while conversing with giant talking insects, and taking mind-altering substances which transported them into a dream zone. Cronenberg is on subtler form here but this is a fascinating companion piece about the need to understand and articulate the human condition.