Mark this the season to be sexually perturbed for actor Michael Fassbender. There he is, in all his sex-addicted torment in the year’s most erotic-meets-antierotic film, Shame, and then also in coldly self-controlled, analytical form as our man Carl Jung in David Cronenberg’s intriguing, if problematic, A Dangerous Method. Fassbender’s Jung, via this film adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s play, is a man in the middle of several tense historical, intellectual, and libidinal junctures as he treats and takes as a lover a woman who, he tells his mentor and later foe Sigmund Freud, “is a walking advertisement for the effectiveness of psychoanalysis.”
Freud appears in the form of Viggo Mortensen, who fares gamely enough in a challenging historical context. As for the woman in question, the jury is still out on Keira Knightley’s performance as Sabina Spielrein, the tortured, manic patient of Jung who is “cured” by his Freudian techniques for treating her sexual repression and then becomes a student and respected psychoanalyst herself. Knightley is deliciously over-the-top in a stunt-performance way, which is entertaining on its own crazy terms, whether or not we buy her character or her in-and-out Russian accent.
As in his bizarre masterpieces Dead Ringers and Crash (the original, real Crash) and his many best films (a group in which this film doesn’t belong), Cronenberg finds ingenious ways of mediating darkness verging on perversity with an elegance of surface and pacing. It’s almost a polyrhythmic, poly-emotive trick he pulls off. For this task, Cronenberg gets help from his longtime ally, composer Howard Shore, who knows how to keep his cool, tap into classical atmospherics, and inject sly dissonances for emotional enhancement’s sake.
In A Dangerous Method, for all the extremes of emotional unloading, furtive infidelities — including sudden spanking moments — and frictional dynamics in the film, it proceeds with a kind of stately calm. Much of the mise-en-scène involves conversations in quiet rooms or on idle strolls. In this early-20th-century saga, before the World Wars, there may be a war going on, internally and philosophically, but on the face of it, all seems cool, rational, and reasonable. What bubbles beneath the surface and in a horrific global future to come is the untold but clearly felt rest of the story.