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Monday, November 28, 2011

A Dangerous Method


If you're still thinking about your mother, not even Freud can help you. 

The birth of modern psychoanalysis. The world as we've come to understand it, from two of the sharpest minds to have ever graced the field - Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Knowing this, one can only assume that the unstoppable force (Jung) would not meld with the immovable object (Freud), especially when a woman (Sabina Speilrein) comes between them.

It shouldn't be a surprise that a film about psychiatry would be full of long stretches of dialogue, should it? Of course, for a David Cronenberg film - if his career is indicative of anything - it might be surprising. Though, since 2005, he's apparently traded in the industrial fare for a more human style of filmmaking. His career hasn't suffered, surely, but it's interesting and certainly surprising (in effect) to see where he goes next. A proposed sequel to Eastern Promises might be on the way. And for a filmmaker as strong as Cronenberg, it could be the right territory.

The film opens in the early 20th century, with a young woman being hauled away in a horse drawn carriage. Though, for her, it seems to be more of a horse drawn cell. She's placed in the psychiatric care of Dr. Jung (Michael Fassbender). The woman, Sabina (Keira Knightley), might not need much care were it not for the society around her. Still, Jung brings out in her the patient he never knew he wanted - a cunning young woman suffering from the abuse of her father, and driven by a desire for humiliating sex. Her major fixation - being spanked.

Of course, with a patient that looks like Keira Knightley baiting you to have sex with her and spank her with a belt... you're going to have a hard time focusing on the actual job. Jung would eventually cure her and she would become one of the first female psychoanalysts. If you know anything about history, this isn't a spoiler. And beside, spoilers are superseded by fact. By the way, Aaron Ralston lost an arm in 127 Hours. Point being - Sabina and Jung enter into an elicit and graphic affair, leading Jung to seek the council of Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), off of whom he basis his treatment for Sabina. Freud's (then) modern theories about human sexuality being at the root for most mental distresses was cutting edge medical hypothesis, but Jung found fault with his diagnoses. Over this disagreement, an intense friendship is formed and both parties would come to know the best and worse of each other, through Jung's affair with Sabina.

It would be easy to say that the film talks too much, sure. But, isn't this the case with most films about psychiatrists? If Jung had transformed into a fly halfway through, wouldn't you be like "..."? And if Sabina and Freud sword-fought during their first meeting... actually, that would have been all right. I would watch that.

Thing is, despite the apparent complaints that the film is too dialogue heavy, it shouldn't be that much of a complaint when the film boasts one of the best screenplays of its year. It might not make it into the Oscars' categories, but consider the source material - three psychiatrists battling wits, two among the most famous men of all time. Freud's theories about penises and mothers are woven into the dialogue beautifully, as are Jung's eventual archetypal theories. The film does an excellent job weaving between the two men, building the tension around Sabina.

Keira Knightley's performance is something to behold. There's a phrase among actors called "dropping in", where an actor so immerses themselves in a role that even without the help of make-up or costuming, they become unrecognizable. Here, Knightley completely drops into the role of Sabina. It's always flattering to admire the way a character moves rather than how an actor might move as the character - it's a testament to their incredible skill. Her quirks and ticks that comprise her character are second only to the mental cues she displays even by simply breathing as Sabina - she's completely in character. Her scenes with Fassbender are magnetic, not even just because of her. Fassbender's quiet reptilian performance as Jung is remarkable. Physically almost unrecognizable, however, is Mortensen as Sigmund Freud. He's got the beard, he's got the gut, but most importantly, he's got the guile. He, through his subtle mannerisms, embodies not just our current idea of Freud, but the man who Freud might actually have been. Both he and Keira Knightley are perfect in their roles.