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Venice 2011: A Dangerous Method

By Cineuropa • Published on September 3, 2011

[C]anadian director David Cronenberg presented his latest film on September 2, the eagerly-awaited German/Canadian co-production A Dangerous Method at the Venice International Film Festival.

In 1904, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a young woman suffering from hysteria, becomes the patient of psychoanalyst Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). Between them develops a physical relationship which Jung decides to keep secret from his confidant and mentor, the famous Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). This initial betrayal is the catalyst for a deep discord between the two scientists. Jung and Freud agree on certain issues, but their diverging views about the future of psychoanalysis and its field of experimentation will force them to pursue their research in opposite directions…

Fans of the Cronenberg of The Fly and his more recent Eastern Promises will perhaps be a little disconcerted by the classicism of A Dangerous Method which, in many respects, recalls Stanley Kubrick’s approach when he made Barry Lyndon. Accurate and well-documented, especially when it comes to the type of machinery used in Jung’s experiments, Cronenberg has set himself a hard task in recounting a love triangle whilst summarising the theories associated with Freud and Jung at the same time. These theories are expounded in the concise dialogues that are never boring thanks to the rich material cleverly laid out on screen, with no “bulimia” or excess of any sort. The major principles are brought together in a few evocative quotations. “There must be more than one single driving force in the universe”, says Jung when challenging Freud’s sole explanation which puts all psychoanalytic disorders down to a sexual root cause. According to the master, “the world is as it is and there’s no use replacing one disillusion with another”. It’s a conservative idea which contradicts the possible futures that Jung promises to his clients in their path towards recovery. Cronenberg has rarely shown so much restraint in his directing. The decision not to give in to sensationalism by acting out the dreams (which are often evoked) is a form of particularly intelligent artistic humility.

While the directing cements the film, the cast brings the finishing touches. Mortensen gives Doctor Freud a patriarchal presence that justifies the title of “fatherly figure” given to him by Jung, played by an elegant Fassbender who guards an inner world where, unlike his mentor, peace doesn’t reign. Vincent Cassel, in perfect English, plays his version of Otto Gross — the disruptive element — with greater freedom than the other actors. The figure of Freud is too well-known by people to allow any freedom of acting and Mortensen adopts every physical feature, every accessory and the foreign accent (the only accent in the film). Jung has a more low-key public image which enables Fassbender to give a more personal performance. But above all it’s Knightley, with her frail physical appearance and tortured grimaces who gives a remarkable performance, full of symbols foreshadowing the images of bodies which will be discovered at the end of the Second World War. Moreover, it’s with this premonition experienced by Jung — one of the principles of discord between the Master and his disciple — that the film closes. This is a way for the director to address the criticism made against Jung during the Nazi regime. As for the psychoanalyst’s role during the Great War, we are none the wiser, because Cronenberg depicts the period from 1904-1934 without once mentioning the conflict.

Domenico La Porta for Cineuropa.org

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