Jutting her jaw out and writhing manically, Kiera Knightley makes a ferocious entrance in David Cronenberg’s latest little bit of perversity. As Sabina Spielrein, a patient suffering from hysteria, Knightley’s heavily eroticized, larger-than-life performance threatens to obliterate the postcard scenery and upend the fussy period detail of her pre-WWI Zurich sanitarium. Which is, of course exactly the point.
It’s female sexuality as a disruptive, uncontrollable force, a familiar theme in Cronenberg’s work, but quite the revelation to Michael Fassbender’s marvelously uptight Carl Jung, pioneering the practice of psychoanalysis while trying his best to keep a lid on his own, more ungentlemanly urges. His repression is a source of constant amusement to mentor Sigmund Freud, played by Viggo Mortensen with sly, avuncular wit and an omnipresent cigar that I’m assuming probably means more than just a cigar.
Even though the screenplay was adapted by Christopher Hampton from his own play, The Talking Cure, A Dangerous Method is still a classically Cronenbergian text, as these characters’ big brains can never quite keep up with their unruly bodies, and when the sex finally erupts, it’s like something from one of the Canadian filmmaker’s early creature features. Note the savvy way that Knightley’s hankering for spankings is always photographed through doorways or mirrors, framed like a monster movie within the movie. (I also love how Jung keeps his tie on when he’s banging her.)
As the aptly named Otto Gross, that great livewire character actor Vincent Cassel steals a healthy chunk of the movie as a walking id, sneakily sent by Freud to rattle Jung’s suffocating sense of decorum. Largely comprised of psychoanalysis sessions and a flurry of letter-writing, A Dangerous Method is unapologetically chatty, daring the audience to keep up as these innovators invent the language we use when we talk about things we don’t want to talk about.
Sabina grows from Jung’s patient to his mistress and then finally his colleague, and the initial heady buzz tapers off into something of a languor as the years wear on and the erotic charge wears off. Jung and Freud have their own little Oedipal struggle going on, but the movie doesn’t end so much as it just kind of peters out.