It’s a cheekily exaggerated performance, a huge gamble to portray his character’s mania and disgust in an intentionally off-putting way. But ultimately it pays off as it makes sense in the context, and especially that this woman evolves.
For this is a David Cronenberg film – although the pristine and cultivated attributes may suggest otherwise – and this time, Knightley is his monster.
Cronenberg has specialized in a particular brand of horror films over the decades, with physical mutations serving as the norm in 1980s films like Videodrome and The Fly. Here the transformation takes place on the inside; it is psychological, invisible, but no less surprising. Don’t be fooled by the refined intricacies of costumed dramas.
Set at the turn of the 20th century in Zurich and Vienna, A Dangerous Method follows the relationship between two of the main voices in the development of psychoanalysis: Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen, a regular at Cronenberg in recent times) . Knightley plays Sabina Spielrein, the rich Russian as beautiful as she is tormented, and who finally comes between these two men.
Sabina comes to Jung as a patient, not only turning his dull, structured life upside down, but also providing him with an abundant source of research for the new “talking remedy” he is developing. (The film, written by esteemed Christopher Hampton and based on his play The Talking Cure, is itself based on John Kerr’s book A Most Dangerous Method.)
Looks like she’s as fucked up as she is from the spanking her dad gave her from early childhood, a punishment she not only endured but actually started to welcome and find sexually stimulating.
The button-down Jung is scholarly fascinated but also secretly excited as a man; Fassbender, with his decent attire and car, quietly expresses Jung’s inner conflict, his pervading desire.
But Jung also looks to his mentor, Freud, for advice. Freud, of course, thinks that every symptom is a manifestation of some sort of subconscious sexual impulse, so Sabina’s case gives these two a lot. Mortensen, star of Cronenberg’s Oriental Promises and A History of Violence, here cuts down his steaming masculinity for a dryly humorous performance, full of sarcastic vanity and fun little digs.
Eventually, another troubled spirit turns this trio into a quartet when Freud sends Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), one of his patients, to Jung for treatment. Otto is all idle, impossible to control – and Cassel plays the occasional threat beautifully – but he also inspires Jung to follow his own impulses, even if they are at odds with the comfortable life he shares with his docile and wealthy wife (Sarah Gadon) and their children.
Jung’s interludes with Sabina offer sudden and astonishing moments of sadomasochistic intensity, which punctuate a dominant tone that might actually be too restrained. Their afternoons in his sparse apartment, however, are thrilling and they help maintain a wild streak in a film that is shot and edited with precision and thoroughness.
As Sabina’s behavior sets in – as she moves from patient and lover to full-fledged student and therapist – Jung and Freud’s relationship becomes more and more bitter and volatile.
The series of passive-aggressive letters they exchange provide much-needed humor in this often serious intellectual exercise. But they’re on to something, though: As anyone who’s ever been in therapy can attest, the danger is within all of us, whether we’re willing to face it or not.