Starring: Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen
Director: David Cronenberg
While the title of David Cronenberg's film refers to its subject matter - A Dangerous Method examines how pioneering psychologists Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Sabina Spielrein grapple with an uncharted approach to curing mental disorders - the Canadian filmmaker has himself embarked on his riskiest project in years.
Shunning the gore and grotesquerie that have defined his work Cronenberg delivers a film that is as detached and text-heavy as a physician's clinical report. Not that this has diminished the film's power, however. A Dangerous Method is a remarkably cerebral treatise on carnal desires and corporeal transformation, its theoretical arguments brought to the surface by the tense interpersonal relationships that drive the narrative forward.
While the relative serenity of the action could reflexively be credited to Cronenberg's advanced age - the cineaste will be 70 next year - A Dangerous Method isn't about the director mellowing out. Rather, it evokes the horror in human nature within the dictates of its setting: mostly among Mitteleuropa intellectuals in the early 1910s - repressed, bourgeois ones to boot. The story is more about a bristling sense of disquiet among its protagonists - the acts of outright barbarity come later, off screen, as the film ends on the cusp of the first world war, when the twisted nature of humanity was revealed for all to see.
The film begins several years before that, as the psychologist Jung (Michael Fassbender) toys with the idea of employing a new method - the so-called 'talking cure' - with his patients in his Zurich clinic. It was developed by the Viennese veteran Freud (Viggo Mortensen, above, left, with Fassbender), with whom Jung eventually establishes a relationship that resembles one between father and son, complete with all its loving and oedipal aspects. But before the pair meet - on screen, at least - into the fray comes Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a Russian emigre suffering from bouts of hysteria.
It's through this young woman that A Dangerous Method comes closest to Cronenberg's trademark aesthetic, as her disorder manifests itself through physical distortions, most memorably her jutting jaw, which looks as if an alien creature is trying to burst out of her body. Gradually, Jung's treatment reveals the cause of her condition - a childhood spent under an abusive father has led her to equate physical harm with sexual pleasure. Jung and Spielrein's relationship soon spirals beyond that between physician and patient, a development that the enthralled and appalled Freud uses against his protege.
Jung's psychoanalytical search for the origins of Spielrein's pain mirrors the running thread that defines A Dangerous Method: the film is an origin story for the dreadful and disturbing century to follow and is a harbinger of modern perceptions of the human body. Christopher Hampton's screenplay - which he adapted from his stage play A Talking Cure - crackles with revelations about this issue, and the way he opens the story up to 'the future' (a phrase Jung uses as he points to New York when he and Freud arrive there by ship) is spot on.
Cronenberg manages with a newly restrained aesthetic to convey the significance of the grand human experiment Jung and Freud worked on, - for others and ultimately for themselves - in a multi-layered film that is a source of much pleasure, however the viewer elects to analyse it.
A Dangerous Method opens today