Dear A Dangerous Method,
Movies exist for many different reasons. There are movies that seek to inform or enlighten. Then there are those that seek to entertain, thrill, or excite. Some movies try to express a point of view, or change minds, or enact social change. Film is a medium with infinite potential to create stories and experiences with myriad messages, purposes, and reasons. All that is required is for the director, writers, and actors to know the reason behind their work, and to execute it with focus and acumen.
That being the case, it is hard for me to find a reason why you would choose to remain so nebulously story- and directionless, A Dangerous Method. You feature characters who discuss and embody high-born ideas and concepts, yet whose conversations regarding them function only as surface summaries, or a means of proving their own intellect. You evoke a period in time, yet only barely address the greater historical importance or context of this time and the way the world will soon change. You also manage to create vivid, lively characters, greater than the sum of their ideas, and yet leave them with very little narrative or story to give an audience and anchor to care for them.
Yet in spite of this vagueness, this lack of focus, this eroded base of storytelling and narrative, you do have characteristics that impart value to you. As a reenactment of the strange relationship between Carl Jung, Sigmond Freud, and Sabina Spielrein and as a discussion on how their various interactions led to the birth of psychoanalysis you are a brisk and engaging work, in spite of the seeming pointlessness and purposelessness of your narrative.
For one thing, your direction and production design are flawless. You are a beautiful movie to look at, and the compositions and directorial flourishes that make up your aesthetic character are all subtle, interesting, and perfectly in sync with your tale. The pacing of your narrative s perfectly reflected in the subtle editing and languid camera work. The subdued yet earnest conversation between the main characters is perfectly suited to the elegant direction on display here from David Cronenberg.
Then there are your performances. Michael Fassbender does such consistently good work that it feels redundant to mention his name and then begin to laud the performance. Here, though, he might have reached the peak of his performance since Bobby Sands in Hunger. He convincingly portrays Jung as a man at once reserved and self assured while being insecure and barely contained. He evinces a belief in Freud’s “talking cure” and attempts to work it on Sabina, but when it works well enough for her to become a peer in the field his curiosity and admiration create a dangerous cocktail of desire. At the same time, he continues to advocate for and push the boundaries of psychoanalysis. At the beginning we see a talented, earnest idealist, and throughout the course of his studies and experiments he begins to find his own personal faith and morals tested by the very truths he seeks to uncover.
In Vigo Mortensen’s Freud Cronenberg finds the antithesis to Fassbender’s Jung. Mortenson evinces a wry humor in Freud, making him a man beyond his time, and yet very much in tune with it. He rejects Jung’s attempts to bring psychoanalysis beyond the simple act of understanding and into the realm of treatment. To Freud, finding the trouble is the treatment, and he treats Jung’s desire to delve into religion and mysticism with amused forbearance. He appreciates the act of someone following in and admiring his footsteps, and yet finches at the idea of being surpassed. He is the serene base of knowledge to Jung’s eager discovery.
It is Knightely, however, that comes out of the film with the greatest boost to her cache. In embodying the initial mania of Sabina, who was committed to Jung’s sanitarium for fits and tension of an almost crippling degree, Knightely surpasses even the most ambitious expectations. Her jaw juts forward, her voice hitches and catches, her hands grip and twist, and yet the affectations comes off as plausible, meaningful extensions of her character’s illness rather than overwrought showiness on the part of the performer. As she begins to reacquire control of her life, she ably performs as an equal to Mortenson and Fassbender’s characters.
Even Vincent Cassel gives a strangely, seductively effective performance as a fellow doctor and formidable patient for Jung to try to treat. It is his needling and articulate fencing that does the most to sway Jung from his given ideas, and his words work equally as effectively on the audience as they do on his compatriot. Their conversations embody the difference between the idea of understanding and treating the ills at the heart of psychoanalysis.
So with so much right, what exactly is wrong? Well even though the performances and characters are strong – award-worthy even – and the direction is uniformly fantastic, there just isn’t enough story or reason to hang all of these trappings on. There is a feeling of inertia to everything. Even though it is fun to see people who are passionate and intelligent discuss things that are deep and important, we still expect some narrative engine to drive them forward. That propulsion never materializes, and without it your entire production seems to be nothing more than an exercise in play acting. “Look at these people,” you seem to say, “see how they work, how they interact, how they live and breathed once upon a time.” And yet the end you are working toward, the reason behind it all, is left behind.
Would I ever see you again? No, I don’t believe so, but I also wouldn’t discount the possibility. I do not plan on it, but I do not doubt that at some point I may be compelled to revisit you. Still, I would not dissuade anyone interested in you from seeking you out. Your performances are strong, your direction is excellent, and had you had a solid story you might have made my best of the year list. You will feed the imaginations and intellect of the already curious, but you will most likely not wow the uninitiated.
Sorry things didn’t work out,
Brian J. Roan