The films of Canadian director David Cronenberg are a nasty brood, wildly divergent in terms of narrative yet thematically connected by the same obsession with the un(natural) evolution of body and mind. Initially known for constructing some of the 1970's and 1980's most harrowing and challenging genre films (Shivers, Scanners, The Fly), Cronenberg has since evolved toward a more classical, calculated form of storytelling in films like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. Despite this shift, Cronenberg's brilliantly subversive obsessions remain the same.
With A Dangerous Method, a sly and smart examination of the tumultuous Carl Jung/Sigmund Freud relationship during the early 1900's, Cronenberg reaches the apex of this auteurist progression. His thematic concerns (deformity, disease, repression), once so brazenly represented by external violence or sex, are almost completely internalized in A Dangerous Method, revealed meticulously through longing facial expressions, razor sharp glares, and extended dialogue sequences. Fittingly, there's much time spent on the process of relationships, the way people's perceptions of each other change over time.
An adaption of Christopher Hampton's play The Talking Cure, which itself was adapted from John Kerr's novel A Most Dangerous Method, Cronenberg's film begins in 1904 with the dramatic arrival of Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) at the Swiss clinic of Dr. Jung (Michael Fassbender). As the camera glides alongside the horse-drawn carriage, we catch a glimpse of Sabina screaming stark raving mad, her jaw contorting as if it were a malfunctioning piece of machinery. Jung's first session with Sabina does indeed reveal her to be a particularly troubled woman, her body twitching uncontrollably when pressed on devastating daddy issues. Suicide or madness seem to be her only future options. Close contact is essential to these opening scenes, and Knightley gives Sabina a profoundly jarring physicality that beautifully contrasts with Jung's sober, cold demeanor. Only later when Sabina and Jung's relationship evolves, does the full weight of those hypnotic early moments become clear.
The case of Sabina is fascinating for Jung and his soon-to-be mentor and friend Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortenson) because of its severity and the potential it holds for advancing the future of their shared study: what will become psychoanalysis. Jung travels to Vienna to meet Freud, and the pair share a long, revelatory day together where their specific intentions are slowly unveiled. Freud sees the younger Jung as the future, while the latter tends to view the elder man as a father figure. But amidst the stunning Swiss lakes, pristine woods, and cobblestone streets, a psychological schism emerges between the two men, a mental divide that manifests itself through manipulation and deceit. The film quickly becomes a study in division, both emotionally and ideoligically.
A Dangerous Method is the rare period-piece biopic that values ideas over visual window-dressing, nuance instead of pomp and circumstance. Jung and Freud's fascinating roller coaster ride of a relationship reveals Cronenberg's true intention: that the friction of contrasting thoughts/forces can create something new and incendiary. But there's a cost to this process, usually a friendship or kinetic sexual connection that cannot be salvaged. Finally, whereas most Cronenberg films focus on the process of deformed bodies or skin, A Dangerous Method unveils warped relationships, internal struggles that are often visualized through the juxtaposition of silent bodies standing next to glistening natural surfaces. Despite their convictions or ideologies, each character in A Dangerous Method is gently ripped to shreds by their own emotional miscalculations, broken from the inside out. Call it a bloodless dissection of body and soul.