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Dangerous Method, A
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by Peter Sobczynski

"The Jung And The Restless"
5 stars

Throughout his long and distinguished career, director David Cronenberg has long demonstrated a fascination with stories involving complex psychological behavior and a not-entirely-unsympathetic depiction of behavior deemed perverse by conventional society, especially in regards to sexual matters of the kinky kind. Therefore, it is odd to see some of the early reviews of his latest film, "A Dangerous Method," treat it as some kind of strange artistic aberration from a filmmaker whose work tends lean more towards the visceral than the cerebral. Yes, it is true that it is a talkier film than usual for him and one in which the strange stuff is discussed more than depicted but other than that, it is a further and fascinating distillation of themes and ideas that he has been grappling with since the good old days of "Shivers" and "The Brood." In fact, while it may seem on the surface to be nothing more than a dry-as-dust historical waxwork featuring people sitting around in magnificently appointed rooms trading dialogue as stiff as their outfits, it is actually a completely compelling and surprisingly entertaining drama that is one of the best and most vibrant films of 2011.

The film opens in 1904 with the arrival of a deeply disturbed young woman who is dragged kicking and screaming into the Zurich clinic of a practitioner of the new-fangled world of psychoanalysis by the name of Karl Jung (Michael Fassbender). The woman is Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a twitchy mass of nerves who is obsessed with defecation, masturbation and spankings and whose hysteria levels are pitched so high that she can barely get any coherent words out of her wildly jutting jaw. It seems as if Jung is Sabina's last hope and he proposes to utilize a radical new approach based on the work of his mentor, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), that encourages patients to verbally relate the possible inspirations of their traumas in the hopes that doing so will inspire catharsis in them. In the case of Sabina, the so-called "talking cure" is an unqualified success and a woman whose behavior could have previously been classified as borderline feral reveals herself to be an intelligent and sensitive woman who has begun to develop an interest in pursuing studies in the field of psychoanalysis herself.

Two years pass and Jung travels to Vienna to finally meet Freud in person and after an initial talk that runs more than 13 hours, Freud asks his protege to treat a patient of his, a fellow psychiatrist named Otto Gross (Vincent ) who has seemingly developed a one-man war against anything that smacks of propriety. During their talks, Gross encourages Jung to push the bounds of societal norms in order to further his development and when Sabina reveals her attraction to Jung, the two begin an affair that seems to be based half out of genuine passion and half out of a need for field research, right down to spending more time during the act looking at themselves in mirrors than at each other. As time goes on, a rift begins to grow between Freud and Jung over their respective methods--Freud, who once saw his protege as the person who might represent psychoanalysis to the world as something more than Jewish-based hocus-pocus, grows concerned that Jung's boundary-pushing as a threat to all of their work while Jung becomes increasingly critical of Freud's belief that virtually every neurosis has a sexual component to it--and this tension is exacerbated when Sabina, after finally being spurned by Jung because of his refusal to leave his wife and family for her, decides to continue both her analysis and studies under Freud instead.

Even with the prospect of seeing Keira Knightley getting spanked as a lure, it is unlikely that most moviegoers outside of card-carrying members of the Cronenberg cult would consider the notion of watching an overtly intellectual and intensively talky exploration of the early days of psychoanalysis to be anything more than the kind of dry-as-dust costume drama that is little more than a barely-living diorama but one of the surprising things about "A Dangerous Method" is just how entertaining it is to watch. As mentioned earlier, the material that Cronenberg is dealing with here is the kind that he has been grappling with in one form or another throughout his career and now with a chance to handle it in a straightforward manner, he does so in a manner that is unlike anything that he has done before and yet still fits in perfectly with the rest of his oeuvre. Working from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton based on his play "The Talking Cure" (which itself began life as a screenplay for a potential Julia Roberts vehicle), Cronenberg presents the material in a frankly theatrical manner that largely resists the urge to unnecessarily open up the story to make it seem more "cinematic" and this, oddly enough, makes the presentation more compelling that it might have been with a more naturalistic approach.

And yet, even though the film may appear to have a cool and precise tone throughout, this is anything but the bloodless bore that it might have been in other hands. For example, the sex scenes between Sabina and Jung are not depicted in a particularly graphic manner--even the spankings that find the two of them recreating the sadomasochistic relationship between Sabina and her abusive father that was at the heart of her troubles are staged in a fairly elegant and discreet manner. However, they gain additional heat and meaning because we have a real grasp of the characters and what this interplay means to them and says about them; this is not just the standard anonymous rolling in the sheets that passes for eroticism in most American movies these days. Face it, most sex scenes in movies today are pretty gratuitous but the ones here are not only far more gripping than the grappling in something like "Shame" (which also stars Fassbender, oddly enough), they actually do serve a proper purpose to the story.

At the same time, Hampton's screenplay is fascinating in the way that it presents highly technical and complicated material in such a way so that viewers with no working knowledge of Freud, Jung or their philosophies will be able to keep up with ever dumbing it down in any way. In a strange way, it reminded me a little bit of "The Social Network" in the way that it manages to transform seemingly arcane subject matter into something that is so compulsive watchable. Some of the best scenes in the film are the ones featuring Freud and Jung discussing and debating their theories at length and these work because they have been written in a manner that strikes a perfect balance between the informative and the entertaining. The lines are filled with psychological jargon, to be sure, but even though Hampton resists the urge to stop the flow of things to have characters explain what they already know in order to help prevent audience confusion, he presents them in such a disarmingly direct manner that attentive viewers will have no trouble following along. Even more impressively, the scenes are performed by Mortensen and Fassbender with such verve and gusto that they come across like a seasoned vaudeville team going through one of their best-loved routines and making every moment count. In fact, the entire film is surprisingly witty (especially when Vincent Cassel comes in and tears thing up during his brief appearance) and helps make the material into something far more vibrant and lively than one might otherwise expect from the subject matter.

As it turns out, the most controversial aspect of "A Dangerous Method," to judge by some of the reviews that popped up in the wake of its run on the festival circuit this past fall, is the performance by Keira Knightley as Sabina. To some, her performance in the early scenes has been written off as nothing more than scenery-chewing over-acting of the most overt sort and that it is only when she tones it down later on that the film in general and her work in particular begin to work. These observations are frankly baffling because from start to finish, Knightley gives an absolutely extraordinary performance that is by far the best work of her career to date. Is she over-the-top hysterical in the opening scenes? Yes, but that might have something to do with the fact that her character is meant to be suffering from that old bugaboo known as "hysteria," not the kind of disorder that is best represented by quiet restraint. Actually, what she does in those scene is not simply a lot of indiscriminate ranting and raving--what she does is give us an portrayal that is remarkably detailed in both physical (her facial contortions as she struggles to get a grasp on the feelings that are tormenting her are a thing to behold) and emotional aspects. As for the later scenes, she is more outwardly calm and presentable but at the same time, you can still get a sense of the raging emotions that still continue to drive and influence her even though she has managed to control them to a certain degree. To say that Knightley could be crappy in the opening scenes and good later on or that Cronenberg, who is as good as any director working today in getting precise performances from his actors, would have inexplicably allowed that to happen is absolutely absurd. 2011 has seen a surprisingly bountiful crop of daring and successful performances from actresses but to these eyes, Knightley's is the bravest and boldest of them all and while it may wind up getting lost in the award shuffle.

Smart, funny, sexy and absolutely absorbing from start to finish, "A Dangerous Method" is one of the great films of 2011 as well as a major work from David Cronenberg, a director who has more flat-out masterpieces on his resume than most other filmmakers working today. It takes subject matter that could have been indescribably boring and presents it in a lively and exciting manner that will enthrall and entertain students of the subject matter and newcomers alike. At a time when intelligence and eroticism are at a premium in the cinema, will "A Dangerous Method" be able to break through to a wide audience. Beats me, but even if it doesn't, this is the kind of brilliantly conceived and executed work that people will find themselves discovering and coming back to over the years while the more overly celebrated titles of the age fade from memory and relevance.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=22740&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/18/11 15:35:20
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 68th Venice International Film Festival For more in the 68th Venice International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 New York Film Festival For more in the 2011 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 47th Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 47th Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Telluride Film Festival For more in the 2011 Telluride Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 34th Starz Denver Film Festival For more in the 34th Starz Denver Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/06/12 The Taitor Good period movie w/ great sets. costumes, and acting 4 stars
2/12/12 john A great love story wrapped in the history of two giant pioneers of psychotherapy 5 stars
12/20/11 andy A very interesting of Freud and the wild woman between then. I love the story 4 stars
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  23-Nov-2011 (R)
  DVD: 27-Mar-2012


  DVD: 27-Mar-2012

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