David Cronenberg is amongst my favorite living filmmakers. A Dangerous Method demonstrates exactly why.
The trailer for the work made the film seem as though it was going to be a sexual thriller, a la Basic Instinct, and would feature Freud as some sort of Greek chorus. It is not that. The film is actually mostly about people talking about their ideas about how the human mind works – and these people just so happened to change the world with their ideas. Watching their conversations unfold, as boring as that sounds, ends up being almost a fly on the wall documentary about some of the most fascinating people in the twentieth century.
The film is about a Russian mental patient named Sabina Spielrein (Kiera Knightley) who actually aspires to be a psychiatrist herself. She comes to the attention of Dr. Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), one of the earliest psychoanalysts, and he treats her. They develop a deep emotional bond, and begin a torrid affair. Jung seeks Sigmund Freud’s (Viggo Mortensen) advice on the matter and both men use the case in order to further develop their own theories.
Cronenberg has often managed to get the best possible performance out of the actors he’s worked with – like Peter Weller in Naked Lunch, Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers, Viggo Mortensen in A History of Violence, and even Jeff Goblum in The Fly. A Dangerous Method continues this trend with Kiera Knightley. Many will claim that her performance is over the top, and that is true. But that is also part of the point. She is playing a mental patient, and in that regard she does very well, from her hysterical fits to the realization that she is a genius and one of best femme fatales in some time. Oscar worthy? Apparently not, but then again, very few actors have been nominated for their role in Cronenberg films.
That will be the basic thing that people remember. But A Dangerous Method gets under the skin in another way. Cronenberg has long explored the themes of the collective unconscious and sexuality in his works. In fact, that is why they are so good – they are unapologetically frank in examining just how bizarre human behavior can be. Freud and Jung took a similar approach, in seeing how human behavior was pre-determined in ways that people still cannot fully understand. It’s actually surprising that Cronenberg had not directed this movie earlier – it fits right into his body of work.
Of course, many segments of the film are not the usual Cronenberg slate of horrors. Most of the film is closer to My Dinner with Andre – it’s two people talking. That sounds boring, but the film never is. The conversation that the characters have contain the sort of lines – equally enlightening and exciting – that most films never get to in a single scene. For one, the conversation is not a burden. Cronenberg is happy just to let his men talk. That was the right move; it is that conversation that has impacted the world far more than any plot any writer can creator.
But is this a film that I am going to retroactively add to my “best films of the year” list? No, because the film suffers from one gigantic flaw – its narrative structure. To put it bluntly, the film at times plays as though only about half of the script was shot, with characters making reference to events and scenes that the audience never sees. Now, what is left is superbly written dialogue and there are never any plot holes. But the jumpy narrative actually misses many opportunities to give more people information about these figures. Usually I hate when films turn into education slides, but here, I feel that the opportunity was missed to a certain degree. How many people can talk about Jung and his theories to any great degree? Cronenberg is speaking to the converts to a certain degree.
So, the film may not be as good as Cronenberg’s other works. But that is ultimately meaningless – for one, few films in the previous decade were as good as A History of Violence. For another, narrative lapses in a film as brave as this almost become irrelevant – what is important as that a filmmaker like Cronenberg finally found a way to make a film about two men who have long influenced his ideas and art. A Dangerous Method sets out to teach people about Jung and Freud, and how they were more than just the punchline of sexual dysfunction jokes. Cronenberg is the best director to tell the story, and he tells it without falling into the thriller cliches that the trailer tried to insert into the piece
And yes, you get to see Kiera Knightley naked. I can’t believe how many times I’ve had to play that card in order to get people to see great films, but whatever works.