One of the salient points I took away from Psych 101 (or “PSY-150,” as it was called when I took the class in college) is that psychology is actually a relatively new science. The histories of mathematics and biology can be traced back to ancient Greece, the science of chemistry was pretty much invented by ancient Egyptians, and the Mayans had astronomy down pat as early as 500 BC. Psychology, on the other hand, was largely considered a branch of philosophy for most of recorded history. Though philosophers had dabbled heavily in psychological conjecture since Plato, the study of the mind wasn’t considered a science of its own until roughly the 1860s. Yes, that’s 1860 AD.
We’ve only been at this for a century and a half, which certainly explains a lot of the mistrust, ambiguity, and controversy that continues to hang over the practice. We’re still a long way from learning all the secrets of the human mind, with several psychological disorders remaining largely mysterious and countless mental patients improperly diagnosed. Hell, the inventor of the lobotomy got a Nobel Prize, and we weren’t entirely certain that the practice was a bad idea until 20 years later.
As a reasonably intelligent member of the common public, I can completely understand the layman’s antipathy and confusion toward the science of psychology. Then again, as a dedicated student of bioscience who’s had to listen to so much hysteria about genetically-modified crops and the evolution “myth,” my sympathy tends to lean toward the psychologists.
But all of that is beside the central point, which is this: If psychology is such a volatile and controversial science in the 21st century, just imagine what it must have been like when the science was invented. It’s bad enough now, when laypeople don’t understand the procedures and evidence of psychology, so just imagine what it was like when the procedures and evidence were so novel that even the most educated minds in the world couldn’t make sense of it. This is one of many ideas that’s brought forth in A Dangerous Method, and it’s one of the many balls that the movie ends up fumbling.
Let’s take it from the top. At the start of the film, we’re introduced to Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a mental patient brought into the care of none other than Dr. Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). In very short order, Sabina reveals that she’s a victim of sexual abuse, and her psychosis stems partly from how she gets off on such abuse. Prof. Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) comes into the picture a short time later, because even in 1904, you couldn’t mention “sexuality” and “psychoanalysis” in the same sentence without Freud getting involved somehow.
Also appearing is Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), a disgraced psychoanalyst who is also one of Jung’s newer patients. Otto essentially plays the devil on Jung’s shoulder, professing the belief that psychological healing is comparable to setting patients free of their own mental barriers. Ergo, letting patients’ desires run free is the best medicine.
Otto’s arguments are presented in such a compelling manner that Jung is convinced to take Sabina as a mistress in response to her approaches. But wouldn’t you know it, having an affair with a mental patient turns out to be a bad idea. Heartbreak ensues for all involved.
Let’s start with the positive aspects. Visually, the camerawork is perfectly decent. Musically, the score has one very good theme, though not much else. In terms of thematic content, this movie is absolutely overflowing with intriguing ideas about science, sexuality, pursuit of the unknown, the pragmatism of monogamy, and what the practice of healing really means. Additionally, the dialogue in this film is very solid. There are several very intelligent conversations taking place in this film, and most of them are peppered with some nicely witty lines. Strangely enough, I think that my favorite exchanges are about dream interpretations, because this is one of the precious few contexts in which the concept of “dreams as foreshadowing” isn’t just lazy storytelling. I mean, they’re psychoanalysts, how else are they going to show off?
Then there are the actors, all of whom — with one very notable exception — turn in extraordinary work. Sarah Gadon plays Jung’s wife, a woman who’s every bit the meek and submissive domestic ideal of the time, though she shows a surprising amount of brains at times. Vincent Cassel also turns in a memorable — albeit extremely brief — supporting performance, very elegantly portraying Otto as a seductive man of great reason while also making no effort to hide just how much of a fuckup he is.
The portrayal of Carl Jung is a worthy achievement to end what’s been a stellar year for Michael Fassbender. Not only does this movie show Jung’s conflicting desires regarding his wife and his mistress, but it also shows his love and his disgust toward the profession of psychology. Here’s a character who so fervently believes that the way to advance this new science is to experiment in fields that no one’s tested before, yet he’s frustrated because no one else is quite as willing to see if telepathy is real. This is a character who’s proud and ambitious, yet completely aware of his own fallibility. In Fassbender’s hands, this character is brilliant enough to be believable as a genius, yet grounded enough to be relateable as a human being.
As for Sigmund Freud… first of all, holy shit. I was already well aware that Viggo Mortensen was an amazing actor, but I was not prepared for this. Mortensen absolutely disappeared into this role. It’s not an exaggeration to say that he’s completely unrecognizable as anything but the immortal image of Sigmund Freud. This is some breathtaking work right here.
Anyway, Freud isn’t portrayed in this film as a man who’s just interested in sex for the sake of it. He’s interested in the sexual aspect of psychology because it’s something that can be observed, documented, and proven. He’s perfectly eager and willing to take baby steps, nurturing this new science and protecting it from naysayers who will take any excuse to defend the status quo, all so there might be another generation of psychologists to advance the field further. At the start, it’s clear that in spite of any slight differences Jung and Freud might have, these are two very great and accomplished minds who deeply respect each other. This respect breaks down into a feud as the movie continues, which makes for some fascinating drama. And then the feud never comes, but I’ll get to that in good time.
By process of elimination, that leaves Keira Knightley. I really want to like her and I do like her, but I just don’t know what to do with her. She was awesome in Pirates of the Caribbean (not the sequels, but fuck the sequels anyway), and she was very good in Never Let Me Go (one of my favorite films from last year). Yet my reaction to her performance as Sabina is the same reaction I had to her performance as Elizabeth Bennet: I almost hate to disparage it, she’s trying so damn hard.
Knightley very nearly turned this role down, and I honestly wish she had. Her emotions, physicality and speech as a mental patient are all exaggerated to such an impossibly spastic degree that it’s embarrassing in all the worst ways. Never mind distracting, this is a hair’s breadth from being unintentionally hilarious. Needless to say, that’s a fatal mistake for playing a psychologically disturbed woman, let alone in a serious drama.
Though to be fair, it’s not like her performance is entirely awful. Her Russian accent doesn’t sound bad, and there are even a few scenes when Sabina shows a keen intellect and flair for psychoanalysis. When the character’s halfway sane, Knightley is pretty good. When the character is acting crazy (especially during the sex scenes), Knightley is laughably terrible. Seriously, Keira, go take a few years off. Gain some weight, maybe take a few classes, and for the love of Streep, get the hell out of Natalie Portman’s shadow.
Finally, it’s time to talk about my enormous, deal-breaking gripe with this film, though I’m not sure it’s something I can describe in just one word. I’ll put it to you this way: At the start of the film, Jung begins his treatment with Sabina. He brings her on as a research assistant and it suddenly seems like she’s coming along nicely. Then, at the 20-minute mark, the plotline with Sabina is dropped so that Jung can go make friends with Freud. Consider that at this point in the film, Sabina seems on the road to a neat recovery, and the friendship between Freud and Jung seems perfectly solid. It isn’t until the 40-minute mark when the Sabina/Jung affair begins.
That’s 20 minutes of this movie without any kind of conflict. The movie itself is 94 minutes long. This is unacceptable.
The pacing, the conflict, the stakes, the development arcs, the structure, and the rising/falling tension this film are all thoroughly wrecked beyond any hope of repair. There’s no conflict in Jung’s affair because it’s wrong and everyone knows that it’s wrong. There’s no tension in Sabina’s treatment because she’s effectively treated within the first act and we know that any relapses can be dealt with just as easily. Jung’s paranormal curiosities are completely devoid of conflict because we never see Jung actually do anything about them, and all the vague entities who threaten to ruin his career for it are just so many words. Freud is concerned that any outlandish claims will only result in ridicule, but whatever happens as a result of that ridicule is barely addressed.
There might have been some conflict in the impending feud between Freud and Jung, except that nothing comes of it. Absolutely nada. The two characters just decide that they’re no longer friends, and that’s it. The film keeps going on for a few minutes after that, but there’s no climax and there’s absolutely nothing resolved. The characters all just part ways unhappy and that’s it. The End.
Much like its own depiction of Carl Jung, A Dangerous Method is a very intelligent and ambitious film with a whole bunch of brilliant ideas, yet it suffers painfully for lack of direction. If this movie had picked just one storyline and developed it enough to supply genuine tension — with actual conflict, stakes, a climax, and a resolution — then this might have been a movie worthy of the performances by Fassbender and Mortensen. There’s a lot to like about this movie, and I certainly give it points for ambition, but there’s no way I can recommend it.