REVIEW: Fassbender and Mortensen Duke It Out, Amicably, in A Dangerous Method
David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method is probably the most fun you'll ever have watching a movie about Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud duking it out -- and nurturing a deep-rooted but fragile friendship -- in early 20th century Austria and Switzerland. In fact, when I first saw Viggo Mortensen done up in his trim little Freud beard, I nearly laughed out loud -- not because he looked ridiculous, but because he looked so right. Mortensen has become one of Cronenberg's go-to guys in recent years, and you can see why: Even in a period film like this one -- a picture that runs the heavy risk of being ponderous and stiff -- he can slip himself into the scenery with a "Don't mind me, here in my Sigmund Freud getup" naturalness.
That's not true of everyone in the picture, particularly Keira Knightley, who has to navigate a particularly difficult entrance: Knightley plays Sabina Spielrein, a young Russian woman who would go on to become a renowned psychoanalyst herself, but when we first see her, she's a hysterical creature being carted off to a hospital, kicking and screaming, in a horse-drawn carriage. Michael Fassbender's Jung is the doctor in charge of treating her, and she's in the midst of a fit when he first sits her down: Her neck is drawn long and tight, her eyes pop, her jaw juts out so far it looks as if it might detach from her face. It's a lot of acting -- maybe not good acting -- but it sure gets the point across.
Knightley gets better scene by scene, and the movie does too: Cronenberg is working from a script by Christopher Hampton (the movie is based on his play, The Talking Cure, as well as on John Kerr's book A Most Dangerous Method), and his control over the material is both masterful and confident in its lightness. The picture is handsome -- it was shot by Peter Suschitzky -- but not stately in the deadly way. Turn-of-the-century Vienna looks like a happening place here, bustling with horse-drawn carriages and men and ladies walking briskly in, respectively, their dark homburgs and fluted skirts. Somehow, Suschitzky makes it look alive and not like a 3-D souvenir postcard.
In short, Cronenberg has made an elegant film, with spanking. There's some mildly kinky sex in A Dangerous Method, but Cronenberg makes it neither exploitive nor so tasteful that it loses its charge. He's hip to the allure of the forbidden, but he doesn't get carried away by it, nor does he assess any judgment -- kind of like your therapist, come to think of it. (One of the movie's jauntiest sections involves Jung's "treatment" of Dr. Otto Gross, a hedonist sex maniac played by a terrifically scruffy Vincent Cassel.)
Nor does Cronenberg make the mistake of thinking he's writing a term paper. He's a skilled and astute filmmaker, but he has an unfortunate tendency to take himself too seriously. His disciplined offhandedness is key here, and his actors thrive in the atmosphere he's created for them. Fassbender has the great gift of being able to forget how good-looking he is: His Jung is gentlemanly, thoughtful, dutiful, as upstanding as the starched white collar he wears. It all goes kerflooey when he's tempted by forbidden fruit, and Fassbender works that transition beautifully: His facial features are so classically composed -- he looks so preternaturally stable and trustworthy -- that when you see him play a character torn between intellect and the sexual impulse, you understand the costs involved. Through the course of the movie Knightley, as the woman who most challenges Jung both in and out of the bedroom -- he clearly doesn't get the same kick in the pants from his aristocratic wife, played very prettily by Sarah Gadon -- turns her stilted, phony-Russian diction from a liability to a strength. By the end, she's believable as a woman whose intelligence is inextricably bound with her awkwardness: Her Sabina Spielrein is never quite at home in the world, which gives her a better perch from which to observe it.
But the exchanges between Fassbender's Jung and Mortensen's Freud are the movie's greatest pleasures. Fassbender is the straight man to Mortensen's sly jokester. At their first meeting, Freud listens patiently as Jung outlines Spielrein's symptoms in great detail. He offers one observation, which Jung rejects; he offers another that Jung also pooh-poohs. "Well," he says, after waiting one patient beat, "perhaps it's a Russian thing." In A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg takes this meeting of minds and finds the crackle in the connection. It's never dull for a moment, which is an achievement for a movie about two guys who built whole therapeutic disciplines around the acts of talking and listening. Cronenberg is attuned to the inherent drama, and the pitfalls, in what these men did. As a filmmaker, he's as good a listener as he is a talker.
[Editor's note: This review appeared earlier, in a slightly different form, in Stephanie Zacharek's Venice Film Festival coverage.]
Follow Stephanie Zacharek on Twitter.
Follow Movieline on Twitter.