Like many of the great David Cronenberg’s films, A Dangerous Method keeps you at an arm’s length as it dives into the world of the perverse and the key forces that shaped how we think about our own subconscious, our dreams, our sexual desires. The film is set at a time when no one really talked about fetishes or deranged sexual needs — or any sexual needs at all. The civilized world, polite society and all of its trappings, seemed to work counter to our animal nature, thus a subversive culture was born. Freud was perhaps the first to delve into this, seeing that there were clearly two conflicting worlds at play: the civilized realm of the conscious and the subversive realm of our inner thoughts, our subconscious. For better or worse, this madness. Living contrary to one’s nature will always produce madness, insanity even. That’s whether you’re Sabina, Keira Knightley’s character who is driven by a sadomasochistic fetish, or Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) who is trapped in a marriage that doesn’t give him the sexual satisfaction or intimacy he requires. They each seek freedom — but freedom is the one thing, at that time, that eludes them.
Since the film is about Freud and Jung, it must be told through their eyes, probing and warped though they are. Viggo is great as Freud, and Fassbender once again turns in another spot on portrayal, although he doesn’t have to really sink into it the way he does in Shame. The real acting standout is Knightley, though. It’s hard to say whether she goes too far over the top with her hysteria — she looks like she has to vomit half the time and her face contorts in ways you probably never thought was humanly possible. She nails the Russian accent and I found her performance growing in my mind as the day wore on. I still think it could have been ratcheted down a notch but I admire her for really going for it in full. I honestly never thought she had it in her to go that dark. The thing is, this character then becomes a rather prominent person in history in her own right — so it’s a little jarring to meld the two impressions together. Nonetheless, Cronenberg likes his audience uncomfortable. I look forward to seeing it again so I can really absorb more about the opposing approaches Freud and Jung are arguing.
In typical Cronenberg fashion, he seems to delight in watching the sweet Ms. Knightley totally flip out, jutting out her jaw, distorting her face and then ultimately releasing all of that inner fire once someone does what she so desperately desires them to do: to shame, humiliate and hurt her. A whole movie could be made just around their sexual relationship, and Cronenberg is absolutely the person to do this. Like most of his movies about sex, there is always one full remove there which forever keeps you at a distance. He does that here even more than usual.
Knightley, for all of her gnarling and spasms, never really conveys true sexuality in this, which makes it all the more bizarre. With her rigidly thin frame, the voluptuousness of out there eroticism is gone but it fits with Jung and Freud somehow. It’s as though the last thing you’d ever be thinking about when you look at her is sex. It isn’t that she isn’t sexy – hell, in Pride and Prejudice, Atonement and Love, Actually she’s sexy as hell. It’s that here, pinned underneath the era, the corsets, the manners it has subverted and become something else. When her character is at her most alluring, ironically enough, is not when she’s being spanked or kissing Fassbender, but rather when she discusses ideas and uses her fiery brain – herein lies the character’s true sexiness.
I kind of loved Knightley in this ultimately, even though she might be off-putting to some. That is precisely what makes it a Cronenberg-strange movie. Her facial expressions represent the grotesque.
The cinematography, score, art direction and costumes are enough to propel it into the Oscar race, though I suspect attention might be paid to Knightley too. It is not a touchy/feeling film, however. And despite the passionate love story between Knightley and Fassbender, it is a very cerebral, intellectual experience. Cronenberg, and screenwriter Christopher Hampton, are after the world of ideas and thought here. Big concepts about our inner worlds drive the story, mainly. The sex scenes are brief and never go as fully as you’d like them to. They are as repressed as those engaging in them.