Dir. David Cronenberg
(2011, R, 99 min)

The characters in A Dangerous Method are petty and neurotic, but they hardly seem to realize it. The fascination of David Cronenberg‘s film – adapted by Christopher Hampton from his stage play The Talking Cure, which itself was adapted from the book A Most Dangerous Method by John Kerr – is how the refined intellectuals of the early 20th century – specifically, pioneering psychologists Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) – mask their insecurities in the kinds of jargon they invented to describe other people’s insecurities. I don’t know how accurately this reflects the real relationship between Freud and Jung, but Cronenberg has made of them a fascinating portrait of repression so deep, it seems, that they developed an entire discipline to think their way around their feelings.

Jung is the more erratic of the two. He’s governed by powerful sexual impulses, and that just won’t do for a man who prides himself on his command of human behavior, so he denies his desires until he acts on them, followed by intense intellectual contrition. Rinse and repeat. He’s drawn to one of his patients, a Russian Jew named Sabina (Keira Knightley), whom he at first treats for bizarre emotional episodes, but then he crosses the line. But she is not a victim, per se, for after her breakdown she comes to accept desires that he can’t bear to address, and their roles reverse: she becomes bold and confident, while he withers with self-doubt.

Freud appears to be more grounded, but he is no less subject to his own obsessions. He informally counsels Jung, quietly enjoying the younger man’s admiration under the guise of friendship, but always careful to maintain his advantage. In one telling scene, Jung recounts a dream, and they analyze it together. Freud says he has also had an interesting dream, but makes a point of not telling Jung about it, explaining that he does not want to relinquish his “authority.” Fearing his own obsolescence and Jung’s potential to surpass him, he draws a clear line of superiority between them. Also coloring the Jewish, middle-class Freud’s opinion is a resentment of Jung’s wealth and Aryan race. Amazing how, just beneath the finery of science and intellect, the two men form a frenemy dynamic no more elevated than a storyline from Gossip Girl.

Cronenberg’s style is cold to the touch, pointedly austere, reflecting the characters’ willful suppression of feeling. Sabina, who becomes a doctor herself, believes that sex is akin to annihilation, and indeed Jung is terrified of destroying his reason, his logic, his detached objectivity – indeed his entire sense of himself – by giving in to his animal impulses. Appropriately, it is Sabina who is the film’s sole receptacle for passion, especially in her manic early scenes, during which Knightley’s wild, twitching enactment of a nervous breakdown falls somewhere between remarkably courageous and patently ridiculous, or maybe both at once. But it’s her madness that allows her to eventually see reason, while Freud and Jung’s obsessive reason slowly drives them to madness.