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January 28, 2012

“A Dangerous Method” to Obtain a Talking Cure

by Justin Senkbile

David Cronenberg's “A Dangerous Method” is a detailed history of the development of Sigmund Freud's “talking cure”, better known today as psychoanalysis. And as such, it ends up being a film about the psychology of psychologists, and the ways in which their own relationships and neuroses formed what would eventually be remembered not just as a touchstone in psychology, but a fundamental part of much of twentieth century thought.

In yet another role that plumbs psychosexual depths (his starring role in “Shame” continues at the Ross for another week), Michael Fassbender here plays newbie analyst and Freud protege Carl Jung. We meet him shortly after a troubled young woman, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly), is being admitted into his care. With her, he begins experimenting with Freud's psychoanalytic method.

Freud shows up shortly afterwards, played by frequent Cronenberg collaborator Viggo Mortensen. Already well-established as the father of this brave new method, Freud takes a supportive but strictly authoritarian role in Jung's life. It's Jung's fascinating sessionswith Spielrein that will bring him together with his Austrian father figure. And its his quick burning affair with her that will eventuallyhelp drive the two men apart.

Based on actual events, as documented in letters between these historically heavyweight figures (Spielrein went on to become a noted psychoanalyst as well), “A Dangerous Method” has a very exciting sense of immediacy to it. Especially when we're listening in as Jung and loose-cannon analyst Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel) discuss the moral and psychological implications of an extramarital affair. Or as we eavesdrop while Jung and Freud casually dissect a recent dream, as friends would.

Most of all, we watch as Jung experiments with his work through his life. His relationship with Spielrein seems based on just as much professional curiosity as sexual attraction. Like an insatiable explorer, Jung delights in burrowing deeper into analysis of his own desires and behavior. So what better way to test the mettle of his ideas than having an affair with a madwoman (one played by Keira Knightly, no less)?

That's the sort of thing that's most fascinating here, the way that “A Dangerous Method” so often illustrates theory being fleshed out, filled in and adjusted by experience. That's no short order for an actor, but seems like child's play for Fassbender, a performer capable of communicating enormous complexity with his presence.

Her forceful Russian accent is a bit startling at first, but Knightly gives a full body performance here, spending much of the early scenes writhing and convulsing under the weight of her psychosis. The kind of “bodily horror” we're used to from previous Cronenberg films like “Dead Ringers” and “The Fly” finds a home in this film too, right there in Knightly's startling, contorting face.

As far as intellectual adventure films go, this is about as compelling as they come. And for its performances, its visceral power and its graceful final notes, “A Dangerous Method” emerges as Cronenberg's best film in recent years.

A Dangerous Method” is playing at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center, 13th and R streets, through February 9th.



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