David Cronenberg has always been fascinated by the relationship between mental state and bodily consequences. So it was perhaps inevitable that he would make a film about Sigmund Freud and the psychoanalytic movement. His very first film, a seven-minute short, “Transfer,” is about the relationship between a psychiatrist and a patient.
His latest film, “A Dangerous Method,” which is being showcased in this year’s New York Film Festival, takes that conflict-laden pairing one step farther, focusing on a rather peculiar triangle, the parallel relationships between Freud (Viggo Mortenson) and Jung (Michael Fassbender), and Jung and Sabine Spielrein (Keira Knightley). For a filmmaker whose work is filled with jolts and shocks of the most visceral sort, the most shocking thing about “Method” is how unshocking it seems at first glance. But what Cronenberg and screenwriter Christopher Hampton are really interested in is a more cerebral version of the conflict at the heart of the director’s worldview. The result is complex, nuanced and enthralling, very likely the first narrative feature about psychoanalysis that is really about psychoanalysis.
Set in the years between 1904 and the First World War, the film begins with Spielrein’s arrival at the lakeside sanitarium where Jung is employed. She is, to use an outmoded diagnosis, an hysteric, prone to uncontrollable fits of rage and self-abuse. Jung is experimenting with Freud’s “talking method,” and Spielrein’s quick intellect is engaged almost at once. His success with her leads him, eventually, to Vienna where he and Freud fall into a cozy father-son relationship. The older doctor eventually dubs his protégé “The Crown Prince,” noting that unlike all of the other members of the burgeoning psychoanalytic movement, he is a non-Jew and, hence, a potential public face in a world brimming with anti-Semitism.
Gradually, though, Jung falls into a sexual relationship with Spielrein (with a strong sadomasochistic element) and his thinking takes on elements of mysticism that will eventually discomfit and finally alienate his mentor in Vienna. Spielrein will eventually become a distinguished analyst herself (the second woman admitted to the Psychoanalytic Society) and will affiliate herself with Freud in his rift with her former lover.
That decision, historically accurate, echoes Cronenberg’s own inclinations, he admitted in the post-screening press conference last week.
“I feel more empathy for Freud’s approach,” he confessed. “I insist on the reality of the human body, like Freud. [Besides], Freud ended up an old Jew and I’m heading that way myself.”
It is intriguing to hear Cronenberg make a remark of that sort, one of the rare occasions that he has mentioned his own Jewishness, albeit in a characteristically light-hearted mood. “Method” offers a full-frontal confrontation with the issue of psychoanalysis as a “Jewish science,” with Freud understandably ambivalent. On the one hand, he is reluctant to allow his life’s work to be dismissed as the product of Jewish word- and sex-obsessions, yet he is even more unwilling to cede the high ground to his detractors simply because he isn’t a Christian. As he remarks midway through the film, “This is a world full of enemies” and, although he is referring to opponents of psychoanalysis, he is clearly speaking of anti-Semites as well. The connection becomes obvious and deliberate when he tells Spielrein “Put not your trust in Aryans.”
“A Dangerous Method” is fiendishly difficult to write about after only one viewing. The film is worked out visually in terms of lines of power and attraction in such a complex way that I suspect the patterns will only reveal themselves on a third, fourth or fifth viewing. The beauty of the film, happily, is that it will reward repeated screenings, yet has such obvious delights that a first encounter must be a delightful on. Hampton’s script, from his own stage play, is shrewd and witty without falling into all the traps that usually wreck such historical dramas. The three leads are stunning. Fassbender gives Jung a soul. The character is tormented by his intellectual pursuits more than his carnal ones; he is deeply divided by his allegiances to Freud, Spielrein and his own long-suffering wife. Mortenson’s Freud is at once avuncular and oracular, dryly witty and constantly calculating. Knightly, whose performance is by far the riskiest, allows herself to contort her body like a — well, like a Cronenberg protagonist unaided by special effects; hers is a fearless, almost reckless performance whose audacity disguises the care with which its gradations have been worked out.
It would be easy to call “A Dangerous Method” a Cronenberg film for people who are afraid of Cronenberg, a film stripped of the “yuck factor” that is at the center of the director’s work in horror, science fiction and crime films. Certainly, the film has none of the gross-out moments that are one of his trademarks. What it has instead is a steely intelligence, a wry humor and a formal and intellectual rigor that are all too rare in narrative films these days.
The 49th annual New York Film Festival will run through Oct. 16 at the Walter Reade Theatre (165 W. 65th St.) and other near-by locations. For information go to www.filmlinc.com.