In the opening scenes of “A Dangerous Method,” we find Keira Knightley playing a young woman who is completely, utterly losing it. This is not just a “scream and smash some dishes” movie version of a breakdown, but total gibbering, thrashing, convulsing hysteria. It’s frighteningly out of control, and Knightley -so often derided in the press as just another pretty face — is so convincing, we fear she might hurt her wild-eyed self, her jaw seemingly about to burst out of her skin.
This being a David Cronenberg film, that would come as no surprise. But Cronenberg has long since moved on from the “body horror” for which he was once known — with such films as “The Fly,” “Scanners” or “Crash” — and longtime fans may be more shocked to find that “A Dangerous Method” is essentially a period drama, with elegant turn-of-the-19th-century costumes, eloquent dialogue and picaresque, perfectly-trimmed gardens that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Merchant Ivory film.
Based on a stage play by Christopher Hampton, “A Dangerous Method” is set in Zurich, 1904, and follows Sabina Spielrein (Knightley) as she is committed to a clinic and undergoes treatment by budding psychoanalyst Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). Jung decides to try Sigmund Freud’s bold new “talking cure” — i.e., psychotherapy — and the results are successful enough that he travels to Vienna to meet the man himself, played by Viggo Mortensen. If Mortensen was the heavy in Cronenberg’s last film, “Eastern Promises,” he plays the intellectual heavyweight here, charming and cajoling Jung into his orbit.
The film covers the intense camaraderie that developed between Freud and Jung, whom Freud groomed as his successor, and their eventual falling out over Jung’s increasing interest in mysticism, as well as his improper relationship with Spielrein. She was not just Jung’s test case, but also a protege, and eventually his mistress. Jung, whose own notions of proper conduct were challenged by the anarchist analyst Otto Gross (a saturnine Vincent Cassel), became deeply involved in an extramarital affair with his patient before breaking it off under pressure, as the hint of scandal infuriated Freud.
It’s fascinating to watch these people probing for answers, wrestling with their own concepts and heading off toward destinations intellectually unknown. It’s also bemusing to see how those treating psychological disorders were far from immune to them: There’s Freud, with a big phallic cigar planted in his mouth in every scene, an oral fixation if ever there was one; Jung, who Oedipally turns against his father-figure Freud, while also replacing the abusive father in Spielrein’s life. By “treating” her disorder through indulging it in spanking-heavy liaisons, he engages in the very counter-transference he would later warn against in his writings. His relationships with his buttoned-up, too-perfect Aryan wife, Emma (Sarah Gadon), and the Jewish, sexually frank, unstable Spielrein also reveal a classic madonna-whore complex.
Then there’s Spielrein herself, diving into her studies of the libido, only to find herself stymied by her own lack of sexual experience, which she soon sets out to remedy. Her signature theory — that “true sexuality demands the destruction of the ego,” which influenced Freud’s concept of the “death drive” — was intensely influenced by her own masochistic tendencies, despite Freud’s view that the tendency was a “common perversion.”
The root of her illness is sexual deviation that’s not far removed from the self-harm of Deborah Harry’s character in Cronenberg’s “Videodrome” or Holly Hunter’s in “Crash”; in this sense, “A Dangerous Method” is very much a Cronenberg film, walking a fine line between sanity and insanity, and showing how — through Spielrein’s hysteria — mental states manifest in the body.
The director, who has so often shown desire overwhelming rational thought -see “Dead Ringers” or “M. Butterfly” — trumps himself here, depicting how even the most rational men, scientifically studying how libido dominates our psyches, can find they’ve opened Pandora’s box. Jung, like so many men before and since, found the scent of danger, that wildness in the eyes, irresistible. Desire, despite the efforts of the Freudians, will always remain mysterious.