In David Cronenberg's surprisingly non-delirious A Dangerous Method, two titans of psychotherapy fight over theories of repression, the meaning of dreams and a disturbed and beautiful patient who frolics in a puddle and, covered with mud, shouts that her interests are "suicide and interplanetary travel." Hubba hubba!
The two titans in question are Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). The patient, also an aspiring psychotherapist, is Sabina Spielrein, played by an effective, embarrassing and sexy Keira Knightley. Although she's liberated from a terrible affliction by the discovery that she's turned on by being beaten, the hang-ups of Jung are the hidden center of A Dangerous Method. Even as Jung starts giving Spielrein beatings in the boudoir, he maintains a square exterior, hiding his wild side from himself and the audience. (Compare this to Fassbender's sex maniac in Shame, reviewed in last week's Indy. A case of yin and wang?)
A Dangerous Method is about Jung's crippling uncertainty. He does not crave the violent sexual catharsis that relieves Spielrein, and he's turned off by Freud's single-minded belief that all problems come from sexual repression. Putting Jung on even shakier ground, ironic double-meanings abound, such as Freud telling Jung not to restrain himself (conversationally) as he piles his plate with meat.
Coupling the double meanings with double exposures, Cronenberg keeps both people in focus during Jung's conversations even though they are on different spatial planes (think DePalma). It's an equalizer that takes away Jung's authority, and Cronenberg breaks from it when Freud refuses to tell Jung one of his dreams because it would threaten his authority. Jung is out of focus, on a lounge chair, similar to an analysand's couch, and Freud possesses a certainty that Jung both questions and craves. In this conversation, they're on a boat, and water is an important symbol throughout Jung's drifting uncertainty. In A Dangerous Method, water is where definition crumbles, forming a (national) boundary between Jung and Spielrein.
The bit of blood that turns up dries quickly, and Vincent Cassel's id-crazy doctor is (woefully) gone in less than a reel. A Dangerous Method never really hits the fan, the way enthusiasts of Cronenberg's History of Violence might hope for. It's a deceptively stately, rich and layered movie, more surprising for its reserve than it would be if it titillated or shocked the way we might expect it to. A Dangerous Method is the calm exterior over a roiling sea of destructive impulses. Sometimes a cigar might be just a cigar, but not this time.