The teasing sense of humor that David Cronenberg has infected A Dangerous Method, his adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s play The Talking Cure, with is a big part of why the film is unmistakably Cronenberg’s finest since 2002’s Spider. Because A Dangerous Method follows Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung as they butt heads over their respective theories of psychoanalysis, it stands to reason that the smallest gesture in the film is full of meaning. Repeated tics, like the placement of hands on hips, or even when one character suffers a sudden, seizure-like paroxysm right after Jung discusses the symbolic death of one of his patients’ fathers, are rather funny. But these actions also connote so much without really saying anything at all. Leave it to Cronenberg to make a nip slip a telling sign of the schizoid nature of Sabina Spielrein, one of Jung’s most infamous patients. Cronenberg constantly uses overloaded images, including, yes, a cigar, to intrude on and indirectly raise the stakes of his film’s central drama. These absurdly loaded images serve to subversively heighten the pathos inherent in Hampton’s source drama.
Every character’s gesture is paradoxically bombastic and consequential. This is appropriate given the way A Dangerous Method presents Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Jung’s (Michael Fassbender) central difference of opinion as a matter of diametrically opposed philosophies. While Freud adopts a pragmatic fatalism and repression, Jung opts for a more broad-minded interest in spiritualism and bohemianism, too. The two men initially form a bond because they both believe in the power of psychoanalysis. But eventually, each man transfers onto the other parts of their respective personalities that they would sooner disavow than embrace.
This central conflict arises after Freud and Jung discuss Jung’s treatment of Spielrein (an appropriately over-the-top Keira Knightley), a masochistic and pathologically repressed patient that Jung, a married man, develops feelings for. Spielrein, an aspirant psychiatrist, is physically attracted to Jung and clings to the idea that he could be her version of Das Rheingold’s Siegfied. In Wagner’s epic opera, Siegfried is a sinner that only achieves spiritual clarity through debasement, specifically incest.
Jung is only really tempted to become Spielrein’s fallen savior after Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel, stealing every scene he’s in, as usual), a coke-snorting, womanizing psychiatrist, advises Jung to pursue his equally lustful and intellectual interest in Spielrein. Spielrein’s a serious character, an articulate confidante for Jung but also a feral deviant. So it’s that much more funny and horrifying to see her conduct a serious post-coital conversation with Jung with her left nipple peeking out of her bodice. She looks ridiculous, but she’s also more composed in that one moment than she has been in any prior scene and will be in any succeeding scene. You have to take her seriously but you can’t; she’s the monster that Jung doesn’t know how to fully disentangle himself from.
These little, uh, Freudian slips speak to the power of seemingly innocent gestures in A Dangerous Method. Jung’s tryst with Spielrein is the perfect foil for his falling out with Freud because it’s fraught with importance. Hampton, who adapted his own play, gave the film’s excellent cast a lot of terrific dialogue to work with. But it’s Cronenberg that makes every action a potential lightning rod for an ideological clash or even a telling sign of Jung and Freud’s own sense of self-loathing. The director hints at Freud’s sense of self-doubt in many ways, including a bitter line to Spielrein about what it means to be Jewish. But one of his most acute and rather funny sight gags is a brief shot of Freud gazing quizzically at his own cigar.
The confused look Mortensens gives his cigar is especially portentous considering that he’s shown conspicuously cutting a cigar the first time he and Jung seriously talk about Spielrein (this preliminary introduction to Freud’s cigar is, incidentally, also when Freud corrects Jung and tells him to call it “psychoanalysis,” not “psychanalysis,” because “It sounds better”). When Freud stares at his cigar for the last time, he’s wondering what it was all for and, yes, he’s also looking at his cigar funny. It’s a revelatory moment and one that says a lot about how Cronenberg’s wicked sense of humor gives A Dangerous Method a masterful air of ambiguity.
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