In a week of cinematic riches raining down from all directions, it’s tough to grab a turn at the mic for a moment. A.O. Scott turns our attention to A Dangerous Method by setting it on the pedestal of NYT’s Critic Pick.
“A Dangerous Method” is full of ideas about sexuality — some quite provocative, even a century after their first articulation — but it also recognizes and communicates the erotic power of ideas. There are scenes of kinky activity between Sabina and Jung that will no doubt enjoy long life in specialized corners of the Internet, but the most unsettling aspect of “A Dangerous Method” may be the links it suggests between sex and thinking. The mind is both slave and master of the body’s appetites, and the absurd and terrifying task of stabilizing that dynamic, in theory and in practice, is embraced equally by the film and the fragile, serious historical figures who inhabit it.
Mr. Cronenberg is, of course, one of the great living practitioners of the horror genre, with a history of bringing fears both primal and contemporary — about sex, dreams, technology, the media, the grossness of the body — to vivid, shocking and grotesquely funny cinematic life. After the brilliant and nightmarish creepshows of the ’80s (including “Scanners,” “Videodrome,” “Dead Ringers” and “The Fly”), he has recently worked in a more classical and at least superficially less extreme mode. Given its long stretches of earnest and erudite scientific talk, “A Dangerous Method” might seem to be his calmest and most cerebral film yet.
It is and it isn’t. The ambient quiet allows you to pick up tremors of deep dread, and Mr. Cronenberg’s fastidious and elegant compositions hum with the latent possibility of chaos and destruction. Jung, with his neatly trimmed mustache and his studious Protestant politesse, seems to embody an ideal of upright Germanic propriety. He is serious, attentive and curiously passive, becoming aware of his own feelings only when other people point them out to him.
…Ms. Knightley’s performance might at first seem grotesque and overdone. She twists her arms together and extends her lower jaw like a demented snapping turtle, stammering (in a thick Russian accent) and making her already prominent eyes pop out of her skull. But what looks like willful freakishness is crucial to the film’s logic, which depends partly on the contrast between Sabina’s hysteria and the respectable reserve of Carl and Emma’s domestic life, and partly on Sabina’s growing ability to understand and express herself.
Ms. Knightley’s facial expressions and bodily contortions seem deliberately drawn from the 19th-century iconography of hysteria. But if she is a revenant from an age before Prozac, Sabina is also an uncannily modern spirit, whose torments are as recognizable as her symptoms are outlandish. And Jung, as he gropes after ultimate meanings and obscure symbols, is surely one of us, an ambivalent inhabitant of the country Freud discovered. “A Dangerous Method” is so strange and unnerving precisely because the world it depicts is, in the end, for better and for worse, the only one we know.