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A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, 2011)
Exploding the era of the costume drama with both its style and its ideas, David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method pushes repression to its breaking point at every turn. A fabulously speculative account of the torrid meeting of minds between Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, and Sabine Spielrein, a patient-cum-colleague, this adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s stage play A Talking Cure is both technically exacting and emotionally exhausting. The stuffy, precise, Masterpiece Theater-inspired style that Cronenberg adapts here pits repression against radicalism from the start, opening the film as Sabine (Keira Knightley) wails like a banshee in a fit of hysteria. Indeed, this theme is perhaps best encapsulated by the developments that Knightley’s divisive, high-wire performance makes over the course of the film. As she becomes normalized through the process of Jung’s talking cure, it becomes apparent that such a cure is at once a triumph and tragedy.
The rhyming shots of Sabine in a carriage at the beginning and end of the film demonstrate both the young woman’s progress and her ultimate entrapment in her “cured” condition (which perfectly demonstrates the gap between Freud’s diagnostics and Jung’s desperate hope for a form of transcendence). Like many in the film, these shots are technically simplistic but utterly breathtaking in their emotional impact. Achieving so much with so little demonstrates the level of Cronenberg’s mastery, and time and again the director uses minimal stylistic flourishes to maximal effect. Each camera movement and most edits radically question the meaning of the scene that has been unfolding. When Sabine has her breakthrough moment during an analysis session, for example, a subtle dolly maneuver changes the two-shot (analyst and patient) to a close-up (a “cured”, functional, and independent patient). Cronenberg’s ability to make his camera track the shifting power relations in this three-way intellectual dispute intensifies all that unfolds.
Indeed, A Dangerous Method is as great as it is not because it contains big ideas, but because it positions those great ideas in unresolved debates. Sabine’s assertion that sexuality consumes the ego is presented as a challenge, but then followed up with a shot of her staring in the mirror as Jung spanks her. For a film that superficially presents a love triangle, but is just as much about the debates of a developing field, the ability to chart how the psychologists’ theories work in practice is essential. A superficially restrained film about overflowing passions, A Dangerous Method is an intense as costume drama as any.