Personal Best, Personal Beast

A Dangerous Method: adapted by Christopher Hampton from his play “The Talking Cure” and the book A Most Dangerous Method by John Kerr; directed by David Cronenberg; starring Keira Knightley (Sabina Spielrein), Viggo Mortensen (Sigmund Freud), Michael Fassbender (Carl Jung), Vincent Cassel (Otto Gross), and Sarah Gadon (Emma Jung) (2011): If you’d turned to someone 30 years or so ago after watching Scanners and told that person that David Cronenberg would soon become one of the world’s greatest actors’ directors, you’d have been laughed out of the theatre. But he did, and after eliciting career-best performances from Viggo Mortensen, Peter Weller, Jeremy Irons, and Ralph Fiennes, in A Dangerous Method he makes Keira Knightley look good, partially by making her look terrible.

As Carl Jung’s patient-turned-mistress Sabina Spielrein, Knightley looks for most of the movie like she needs a sandwich. A lot of sandwiches. Her gauntness enhances her performance, though it is distracting at times — how much of this is method and how much of this is madness? Still, it’s like nothing she’s ever done: for the first time on-screen, Knightley isn’t lovely but dramatically inert.

Fassbender and Mortensen have the much less showy roles as the more outwardly controlled Jung and Freud, respectively. But they do a lot with those roles — Mortensen exudes disappointment at times, while Fassbender, one of the more controlled actors out there, uses that control and reserve to good advantage as the outwardly respectable Jung, who is inwardly and sexually on the brink of his great voyage into the collective consciousness and unconsciousness of the human race.

The movie charts the deteroriation of Freud and Jung’s relationship at the dawn of psychoanalysis, as they go from master and apprentice to rivals dismissive of each other’s theories of the human mind. But Sabina, who eventually becomes a psychoanalyst herself, has her own theories which seek to combine the approaches of the two — and as she reminds Jung at the end, he used Freud’s theories and practices to cure her of her psychiatric ailments.

Cronenberg’s direction remains mostly transparent and unshowy throughout — he’s always been more for mise-en-scene anyway, and the composition of many shots ranges from lovely to subtly disturbing. I don’t know that this is a great movie, but it’s a very good movie on a difficult-to-film subject. Recommended.

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