Cronenberg’s wry toast to headshrinking

David Cronenberg’s wry, almost incredulous treatment of Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud and the late 19th-century mind transforms what could be neurotic movie misery into common unhappiness—or perhaps the guilty pleasure of schadenfreude.

A Dangerous Method confines its fictional gaze to a remarkable historical confluence of winding intellects, when future shrink Sabina Spielrein (a courageous Keira Knightley) went from Jung’s patient-who-knew-too-much to his spurned lover bordering on extortionist. As Jung individuates, he grows to see Freud as more fraud than father figure archetype. Neither man seems particularly happy. It’s a lively, playful surface— beautifully rendered by cinematographer Peter Suschitzky—but without much deep psychology to commend it.

Sabina comes to Jung’s clinic in Switzerland diagnosed as a hysteric, a basketcase of tics, exasperating fits and childish exhibitionist display. Without having investigated her most basic sexual history, Jung (Michael Fassbender) futilely applies mystical theories of ESP and primitive brainwave chronographs redolent of carnival sideshows. He writes and finally visits his idol Freud (Viggo Mortensen) in Vienna before undertaking his first psychoanalysis, questioning Sabina from behind—the conscience position—and interpreting her dream language, finally revealing Sabina’s repressed childhood abuse and unleashing her textbook sexual fetish.

Or does he? Cronenberg and screenwriter Christopher Hampton suggest Sabina’s self-awareness and manipulative emotional control: She could be putting Jung on or at least exaggerating her maladies for attention, a possibility reinforced by her professed desire to practice psychiatry. Meanwhile, Jung’s frisson with another fallen Freud disciple, the amoral sex and drug addict Otto Gross—conspicuously referred as a patient to Jung by Freud himself, like a human bomb—convinces Jung to shed his useless repression and take up with Sabina. Or did he want that all along?

Guilty over his compromised position with Sabina, shamed by the castrating effects of the perfectly decent, pregnant wife who keeps him (Sarah Gadon) and conscious of his method’s critical scrutiny by Freud, unintended and uninhibited observation effects ricochet around this egghead triangle to Lermontov poems and Das Rheingold.

Yet that’s only entertaining from a position of airy superiority to the characters. Adapted by Hampton from his stage play The Talking Cure, the story comes apart like a series of nesting boxes as the clash of titanic superegos prove and reprove their own theories, watching their own actions as a running subtext as if helpless, falling into psychosexual traps they themselves would eventually spring upon the rest of the world.

But Cronenberg and Hampton’s atomistic treatment of the characters’ traits seals them in waxen, mechanistic action. The filmmakers act too distant in time or consciousness to relate to any human tragedy and make an emotional claim. In the end, they’ve succumbed to gross nihilism: Nothing is at stake.