A Dangerous Method: movie review

February 2, 2012

I’ve heard people say that psychiatrists have a tendency to be crazy themselves, but I didn’t understand the full extent of this phenomenon until I saw A Dangerous Method.

The “based on a true story” film follows Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) as they build a friendship and debate the ideas that will eventually become the foundation of modern psychiatry. Oh, and there’s a girl, too.

Keira Knightley plays the girl, Sabina Spielrein, and boy, does she ever bring the crazy. And it’s not a cute or sexy crazy, or even strange neighbor lady who wears eccentric purple hats with ostrich feathers crazy. The movie opens with a scene of her acting so nuts you may never again think of Knightley as that pretty girl from all those period movies. I spent several minutes debating whether director David Cronenberg (who is best known for his horror movies) used some kind of computer graphics to make her jaw contort the way it does.

I eventually decided not, but one of the pluses (or probably, for some viewers, minuses) of this film is that it gives you plenty of time to fully contemplate such questions. In other words, not much happens.

The film starts with Spielrein being committed to the asylum where Jung works. He’s pretty excited about that because she seems like a promising candidate for the experimental “talk therapy” which he’s read about this guy Freud inventing. So they give it a try, and we get to witness one of history’s first therapy sessions (apparently the couch came later—she gets only a hard wooden chair).

Conveniently enough, what’s making Spielrein nuts turns out to be sex, which fits in well with Freud’s belief that sex is what’s making everyone nuts. Jung is not quite so convinced, in part because he still believes in religion, but Spielrein is the proof in the pudding for talk therapy.

A montage of therapy sessions, and an internship to keep her busy, and all of a sudden she’s a brilliant medical student instead of a raving lunatic with a lizard jaw. If this movie weren’t alleged to be historical, I would complain about its use of the “all a crazy person needs is love” trope. (See As Good As It Gets for an example. Except, don’t, because I really hate that movie.)

But if this were that kind of movie, everything would end happily right there. It’s not, and it doesn’t. Turns out there’s plenty more crazy where Spielrein’s came from, just as Freud would have predicted. Right when things seem to be going smoothly, along comes Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), another crazy psychiatrist, who needs Jung’s help to stop being a sex fiend. He and Jung have some great therapy sessions except that they seem to work backwards and make Jung crazier instead of Gross saner.

At this point everyone in the film (except for Jung’s long-suffering, child-birthing wife) is a sex-crazed maniac. Naturally, complications ensue. Not as many or as dramatic as you might expect—mostly what ensue are more heated conversations. They are pretty interesting conversations, though, especially for anyone who is enough of a history/psychiatry buff to enjoy watching Freud and Jung analyze each other’s dreams.

Personally, I might have voted for an hour and a half of just those two guys going at it: Did the ancient Egyptians have Daddy issues? Does Jung have a telepathic relationship with the bookcase? What does it mean that Jung seems to be the only non-Jewish psychoanalyst around? Viggo Mortensen makes a terrific Freud, spouting theory and witticisms and chomping cigars (so incessantly that one has to wonder if a cigar is ever really just a cigar).

But in the actual film we also get a lot of extended scenic shots of the Swiss landscape (it is quite pretty), some kinky but not-very-hot sex scenes, and way too much of Spielrein and her contagious craziness.

So when you see A Dangerous Method (as I do recommend that you do), think of those portions as your opportunity to ponder the mysteries of the human psyche and Knightley’s anatomy or refill your popcorn. Just be sure to get back in your seat in time to see Freud and Jung debate the sexual perversions of their patients during family dinner.

Stacey Butterfield lives in Philadelphia, and when not reviewing movies, she works as an associate editor for the American College of Physicians and blogs at speeddating-girl.wordpress.com.

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