Now that Kurt Russell and John Carpenter no longer make movies together, the partnership of writer and director David Cronenberg with actor Viggo Mortensen is probably the most potent one in the film world. After having made the genuinely original “A History of Violence” together in 2005, they collaborated on another fascinating crime drama, “Eastern Promises,” four years ago.
And now Cronenberg, who also directed one of the movies called “Crash,” has cast the hero of the Lord of the Rings movies and of “Hidalgo” and Ed Harris’s “Appaloosa” as Sigmund Freud in the oddest movie to play in Manhattan in recent memory.
“A Dangerous Method” follows the life of Freud’s mystic student Carl Jung during the period in the early twentieth century when the two were friends. This also happens to be the period when Jung was both treating and bedding a masochistic Russian Jew named Sabina Spilrein. I can’t verify the historical accuracy of the film’s events, but as a viewer I didn’t doubt much.
Jung, played by Michael Fassbender, already has a rich and fertile wife (played well by Sarah Gadon) and a job in a large, well-organized Swiss hospital for the insane. He had been following Freud’s publications when Spilrein (Keira Knightey) was brought to him. So he tried Freud’s “method” of treating her—he asked her to talk for an hour or so a day about her background.
This produced immediate results. Her father had punished her physically and she had taken sexual pleasure from the punishment. Understanding her attraction to pain and humiliation made it possible for her to behave normally enough to get into medical school and to excel there.
Jung went to Vienna, which Freud had not yet fled, to report on the case. He made an impression on the doctor—Mortensen looks almost more like U.S. Grant than like the father of psychiatry—who was looking for a good intellectual heir who was not Jewish. Anti-semitism was growing in Europe.
But the older doctor failed to see how completely Jung reflected his intelligent patients’ thinking He sent the sexual conquest obsessed Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel) to be treated at the Swiss sanitarium, and the nutty Dr. Gross convinced Jung that having sex with one’s patients was a reasonable outcome of therapy.
It was her interpretation of Wagner’s recollection of myth that convinced medical student Spilrein that it was only through sin that humans reached their ideals. She offered to have sex with Jung and eventually he acceded. There are a couple of brief (and not particularly racy) scenes of sexual corporal punishment, and the squeamish should be warned.
But they shouldn’t worry much. The film is frank about sex, but it isn’t intended to arouse. Viewers don’t envy Jung. They shake their heads over his confusion. And over the lack of intellectual penetration of all of the characters including Dr. Freud who, we might do well to remember, thought Oxford wrote Shakespeare. Talk about your willful self-delusions.
“A Dangerous Method” uses a cinematically dangerous method of its own. It lets the characters talk. There is almost no action in the film. Cronenberg keeps the scenes brief, and sets and characters are perfectly and lavishly dressed. But showing movie characters talking is usually a good way of eliciting yawns.
Actually, though, “A Dangerous Method” doesn’t bore. This is a tribute to Cronenberg’s talent, to the terrific cast he has assembled, and to his creative partnership with the great Mortensen. I wonder if they’d like to re-make “Big Trouble in Little China.”