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The latest film from Canadian auteur David Cronenberg, "A Dangerous Method," tells the companion stories of rivalry and mentorship, and how those relationships easily become muddled if you, like handsome Dr. Jung (Michael Fassbender), allow your feelings to cloud your ambition. In this tale, refreshingly, no character is confined to a single motivation — they are all equally torn between their visceral impulses (lust, envy) and their sense of social duty (marriage, professionalism).
The first rule of Cronenberg is carnality. He takes great lengths and great pleasure in presenting the human animal as a naked, contorted, sexual, craven thing — and that's precisely how the patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly) enters the film. At the behest of her abusive father, she's sent to Dr. Jung, who attempts to alleviate her suffering through Freud's new mysterious "talking cure." Sabina is a sexually tormented neurotic whose intellectual capability is the only thing keeping her frontal lobe intact. Through attentive one-on-one sessions, Jung manages to render her a non-hyperventilating, ambulatory adult woman who can live all by herself while she attends medical school in Zurich. In all his devoted work, however, Jung's friendship with the patient becomes too intimate for either of them to bear.
Jung's success with Sabina is what garners him favor in Papa Freud's eyes. The two men become dedicated pen pals, and much of the movie's plot-advancing voiceovers exist inside their epistolary exchanges. Ultimately, as history tells us, the great thinkers are heading towards a split over Freud's old-school disapproval of Jung's desire to explore the more mystical reaches of the human psyche. But there's more at play here, and that's the second rule of Cronenberg: Everything is binary — good and evil, old and young, sex and death — and one can move to the other seamlessly. In "A Dangerous Method," tension exists mostly between the moral quandaries and fleshly cravings that haunt each character, most significantly the good Dr. Jung.
Cronenberg again employs understated actor Viggo Mortensen, who also appeared in his two preceding commercially palatable films ("A History of Violence" and "Eastern Promises"). However, unlike his ruggedly handsome, action-star roles of the previous, this time Mortensen plays against type: A secondary character, the cigar-chewing Sigmund Freud, not the sleazy, coke-addled, woman-obsessed Freud you might want but an older, weakly, jealous-father-type who is stodgy in both his science and his Jewishness. He comes across as an aging quarterback too stubborn to be foisted into retirement, even at the peril of his impressive record. Mortensen's Freud is deft, unreadable, and radiates a quiet paternal judgment of Jung.
Despite adhering dutifully to the Cronenberg formula, the film contains several pleasant surprises, thanks, perhaps, to the script's stage-play origin. For one, dazzling French actor Vincent Cassel does his usual slippery turn as the drug-craving sex-addicted Otto Gross, a rival protege who mostly serves as a comically hedonistic foil to the buttoned-up Jung. There are numerous scenes filled with the neurotic dialogue of characters so self-obsessed they end up sounding like Woody Allen's best parodies. A sentimentality usually foreign to Cronenberg creeps in towards the end, betraying all the sex and comedy with its turgid one-liners of a different sort — the kind that have a resonance more like the tagline for "Love Story" than the stiff wit and subtlety that otherwise inhabit the film.