The idea of seeing a psychiatrist for counseling or therapy in this day and age is so commonplace even tough guys like Tony Soprano are willing to lie down on the couch for a little head shrinking.
But not so long ago — just at the turn of the 20th Century — the treatment of mental illness was crude and often barbaric until, if you recall by blowing some dust off your recollections of Psychology 101, men like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung came along.
Their application of psychoanalysis, or “talk therapy,” was revolutionary; however, it is less the technique and more the men and women behind this revolution who are the subject of the fascinating film “A Dangerous Method.”
The movie centers on Jung, who is played by Michael Fassbender, an actor who is currently enjoying one heck of a breakout year. In the past 365 days, he has starred in “Jane Eyre,” “X-Men: First Class” and this January (on what I just dubbed Fassbender Friday) here in St. Louis, he has this film, “Shame” and “Haywire” all opening on the same day.
What is even more impressive than his going all Jude Law on us is that he has turned in notable performances in all these films, even garnering a great deal of awards attention for his cringe-inducing turn as a sex addict in “Shame.”
Here he plays Jung as a wide-eyed idealist who becomes entangled in complicated relationships with the brilliant and aloof Freud (played by the always enigmatic Viggo Mortensen) and a sexually tormented patient, Sabina Spielrein (played by Keira Knightley).
Knightly gives one of the most indelible, yet overlooked performances of the year as she takes Sabina from a clearly psychologically broken woman into a promising student and aspiring psychoanalyst.
Just watching her as she physically contorts and forces out her words in her first conversation with Jung is as heartbreaking as it is engrossing.
Also keep an eye out for Vincent Cassel as Freud disciple and occasional mental patient Otto Gross, who urges Jung to be bolder both professionally and personally.
“A Dangerous Method” was directed by David Cronenberg, who I find to be one of the most interesting directors working today.
He began his career by directing gory and bizarre horror movies like “Scanners” and “Videodrome.” While his movies slowly became more conventional over time, it wasn’t until he hooked up with his 21st-century muse Mortensen for “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises” that he re-established himself as a director of formidable talent.
Since nobody’s head explodes, it could be argued that “A Dangerous Method” is a departure for Cronenberg, but the movie still vibrates with his trademark tension even without the threat of bloody violence.
Jung and Freud’s relationship deteriorates as Freud comes to view Jung as a threat not only to his work but to his celebrity as well. And as Jung’s relationship with Sabina becomes increasingly erotic, the stakes are increasingly raised for everyone involved.
“A Dangerous Method” most assuredly takes some historical liberties with the interpersonal relationships of Freud, Jung, and Sabina. But what makes it such a compelling film isn’t its accuracy, but its measure of the human toll exacted on those who are the first to venture into a new scientific and medical frontier.
The human mind is a scary place to poke around in, especially if you’re not paying close enough attention to your own.
“A Dangerous Method” is rated R for sexual content and brief language.