Movies about the process of psychotherapy have traditionally enjoyed a certain degree of popularity. While it is true that such movies have the tendency to be short of action with a perchance for the dialogue intensive, more cerebral plots they do generate a certain appeal with the audience. Perhaps it’s the forbidden feel on listing to the exceptionally intimate interaction between the patient and therapist affording the viewer the guilty pleasure of breaking a confidentiality vigorously protected by the fundamental tenants of our legal system. It could also be the unwavering viewpoint of the inner workings of the unknowable human mind that manifests such a string pull to the audience. Of course it might be the more mundane and less scholarly desire for gossip surpassing the eavesdropping that was all the rage back in the day of telephone party lines. In any case people appear to enjoy listening in as a troubled person recants the details of their most serious problems to a mental health professional. This has been axiomatic for years providing some insight as to the appreciation of such films as ‘The Three Faces of Eve’, and a personal Favorite of mine, ‘Captain Newman M.D.’ these films may have more talk than action but they are excellent examples of tautly written movies with a compelling story and mesmerizing acting, Recently anther film has taken its place on the list this genre has to offer, ‘A Dangerous Method.’ It is considerably more intense than its predecessors in the psychotherapy genre most due to the greater degree of latitude provided to modern films. This frankness in the presentation of the clinical cases allows the filmmaker to enjoy a greater degree of latitude while realistically probing the etiology and manifestation of such cases within the clinical exploration if the of the problems discussed in the exploration of the troubled mind under scrutiny. ‘A Dangerous Method’ takes the audience back in time to the very origins of this profession specifically the disagreements that resulting in the schism between the two founding fathers of psychotherapy, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender).
The film is set just prior to the events that precipitated the open hostilities that would become the First World War. The premise may appear to be the typical clash of the titans; a struggle for recognition fought between two of the most ground breaking minds of their times but the screenplay by Christopher Hampton based on the novel by John Kerr manages to transcend that well used ploy to become a far greater analysis of that time period. The world was about to reach a new milestone in its social maturity. Not only would the nations wage war on an unprecedented scope but the very fabric of society was on the dawn of radical change. Medical professionals were about to progress beyond the care of the diseases and trauma of the flesh, they were about to tackle the more insidious maladies that infect the innermost minds of man. This has a certain wonderful irony fir the many loyal fans of the director David Cronenberg. His career was largely built on as single precept; "It’s all about the Flesh". His unique style frequent relied on the generation of terror through the grotesque mangling of the flesh forcing a visceral reaction the audience experiences as terror. While many horror flick directors employ the quick visceral fright created by stage blood and copious quintiles of animal intestines none to date have begun to approach the mastery and control affected by Cronenberg. In this film he elaborates on a popular trope in his repertoire, defining the intensity of the story through physical boundaries but then steadily escalating the emotional pitch by expertly twisting the viewer’s psychological perception. This is a notable departure from Cronenberg’s typical faire but a filmmaker of this statue needs to stretch himself artistically in order to maintain his artistic edge.
In this sort of movie it is not unusual to interject a feminine influence between the two opposing power male leads. A notable change in this motif is to make the female character a strongly independent woman with the potential to stand toe to toe with the aggressive men. In the case here the women in question was Sabina Spielrein played by an actress who has become synonymous with incredibly strong willed and self determined women. Whether Knightly is portraying an Edwardian woman fighting for social parity or an adventurous pirate queen she brings an undisputable strength and emotional integrity to her role. Here she plays a young woman who starts out as one of the early patients of the field to becoming a physician and one of the first female psychoanalysts. The arc described by the personal relationship between Spielrein and Jung ran the gamut from patient, student, lover and eventually respected colleague. She also was the ideal historical bridge the two titans of psychotherapy, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.
The story line presented by the film details the turbulent years when ‘the talking cure’ for emotional issues went from theory to gaining a foothold in professional acceptance. When you infuse the production with inappropriate sexual behavior between a doctor and his pretty young patient there is going to be interest not usually depicted on the Biography or History Channels. The antagonism between the two men boils down to the sexually obsessed Freud and the ethically challenged Jung. These form the dominant threads in a complex tapestry of sexual dysfunction and a world teetering on the verge of the most significant set of social change ever seen up to that point in history.
Cronenberg effortlessly steps out of his horror genre comfort zone with a gripping account of a pivotal moment in history. The treatment of emotional and psychological disorders were about to be pulled from the quagmire of superstition and formalized into an accredited branch of the medical professional community. Spielrein who also make a major strike against gender discrimination of the professional misogyny that has kept brilliant women in the shadow of their male peers for generations. This is an unusual movie but one that deserves attention and appreciation.