David Cronenberg has carved a highly respectable career out of making films that tap into the freakiest of human sexuality. A Dangerous Method—a fictionalized account of the early career of psychoanalysis pioneer Carl Jung—looks rather tame in comparison to depraved gynecologists in Dead Ringers. But with less graphic provocation comes more intellectual stimulation. The detailed discussions of the psychoanalytic theories of the Freudian times are very much accurate, but more importantly, the film also provides insight on Cronenberg’s career-long fascination with sexuality and violence.
Carl Jung (Michael Fassbinder) is a medical doctor who has only begun to experiment with “the talking cure” to treat hysteria when a young Russian Jewish aristocrat named Sabina Spielrein is sent to his clinic. The field of psychology has yet to take shape, hence Jung begins to consult the man who invented psychoanalysis— Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). Jung starts to see the progress of his treatment as Sabina begins to trust him and disclose her embarrassing sexual secrets. Everything seems to go well and the intelligent Sabina goes on to become a medical student, with the intent to become a psychoanalyst one day. But when his former patient expresses her interest in a sexual relationship, the straight-laced Jung is equally troubled and intrigued.
While Jung was agonizing over the proposal, Freud sent him one of his patients, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), a renegade psychoanalyst who has little regard for social norms. Though Jung is supposed to treat the anarchistic sex freak, he ends up being influenced by Gross’s unconventional philosophy instead. When Jung asked Gross to consider exercising restraint, the free-loving libertine denounces repression—a recurring theme in Cronenberg’s films—as the root of mental illness and proclaims such practice is the reason why the hospital is bulging at its seams. Cassel has undoubtedly established himself as the go-to guy for playing the sleazy sexual deviant by now, after last year’s Black Swan and another mischievously seductive performance in this film. His portrayal of Gross is humorous and over-the-top, yet he was also intellectually convincing at the same time. Humor is very much an underrated strength in Cronenberg’s repertoire; I would defer you to the grotesque yet underhanded humor in The Fly. The banter between Jung and Freud’s love-hate relationship is just as amusing (not to mention Freud’s phallic-shaped chair). Cronenberg has the keen sense to inject the right dose of humor in the darkest material.
By giving an ample amount of time depicting Jung’s two influential yet separate relationships, A Dangerous Method did not relegate Sabina and Freud into one-dimensional roles as the mistress and the mentor of the protagonist. Sabina’s theory on sexuality as simultaneously a transformative and destructive force serves as the cerebral pivot for the characters’ rational faculty. But it is Jung’s affair with her that daintily unravels a lasting heartache.
A Dangerous Method is playing in select theaters.