It’s true that lots of actors go out on a limb. But some limbs are longer than others. The one upon which Keira Knightley finds herself in “A Dangerous Method’’ is as far from the tree as a woman can get without falling to her death. Playing a Jewish Russian mental patient and aspiring psychiatrist named Sabina Spielrein, Knightley gives her entire performance on that limb.
Director David Cronenberg introduces Knightley first convulsing with hysterical laughter as she’s dragged in to meet the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), then alone, a scene later, having a palsied fit. During this introductory nervous attack, Knightley juts out her jaw over and over until it pulls her forward in the chair she grips. It’s as if the jaw wants to run off and find the top half of a pair of chattering windup teeth.
Asking this particular actress to place the emphasis on her jaw, to turn it into something that could pop out of John Hurt’s chest in an “Alien’’ movie or wreak havoc in one of Cronenberg’s early, science fiction films, is a bold opening move. It’s like asking Barbra Streisand to play a bloodhound. Where an actress goes from these opening scenes is surprisingly suspenseful. People have laughed at the immediacy of the movie’s opening minutes, the way Cronenberg puts Knightley’s jaw and Spielrein’s mania front and center. A lot of this movie is conducted as a knowing amusement, but in the risky early minutes, those could only be an audience’s snickers of discomfort. That introduction is a crucial declaration of priorities. “A Dangerous Method’’ begins where other films hope to culminate.
Jung rehabilitates Spielrein from her breakdown using a new, talking style of therapy being developed in Vienna by Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), who is calling it psychoanalysis. The method proves so beneficial to Spielrein that she overcomes the handicap of her neurosis - something to do with masturbation and her father and being spanked - and becomes the intellectual peer of Jung and Freud, the two more famous men.
For decades Spielrein remained an obscurity whom scholars began to bring into the light with the discovery of her journals and influential correspondence with Jung and Freud. Christopher Hampton wrote the film’s script from his 2002 play, “The Talking Cure,’’ which he carved out of an entertaining tome of researched pomposity by John Kerr called “A Most Dangerous Method.’’ The play, book, and film are ostensibly about Jung’s relationship with Freud; but in all three, it’s Spielrein who looms over the two men as opposed to a more conventional treatment of similar material, which would have emphasized the two men looming over her. The triangle here is mostly equilateral. Each side is captivated by the other.
Jung is particularly passionate about Spielrein, whom he takes on as his assistant and mistress. It’s called the talking cure, but often “talking’’ constitutes Jung unzipping his pants or Spielrein lifting her dress. The sex in “A Dangerous Method’’ is what can only be termed “Cronenbergian’’ - committed with equal senses of perversity and humor, the combination of which can be erotically clinical. But what feels new for him is the raw need that surges between the lovers. This is partly to do with Hampton’s script, which follows a structure similar to the one he used for “Dangerous Liaisons.’’ But Cronenberg sees every emotion through.
Intimate conversations and beseeching letters expose escalating desperation and desire. Rumors of Jung’s affair with Spielrein make their way from Zurich to Vienna, and it’s fascinating watching Jung parse his words to Freud. He must know Freud detects the truth. Eventually, Spielrein wants Jung to clear her name and redeem her reputation.
Generally, it’s fun to hear two of the most important psychiatric minds debate what will become their greatest hits, so to speak. With Cronenberg, Jung and Freud’s time together feels ripe with attraction. Indeed, when the younger, more strapping Jung invites Freud (and his beard and cigar) for a ride in his boat, Cronenberg has the older man squat on the floor in a narrow slit while Jung mans the sails. The insinuation in that sequence is more erotic than the therapeutically askance sex Jung has with Spielrein.
“A Dangerous Method’’ is essentially a drama about repression and release as played by three people who appear to arrive at their theories by practice. We never see Freud disrobe, but there’s a wonderful scene, with Jung seated amid the Freuds at dinner, that enumerates the bounteous outcome of Freud’s previous trysts.
Jung, of course, is trapped between repression and liberation. There are examples of both on either side of him. His wife, Emma (Sarah Gadon, who’s excellent), provides a quiet but incisive visage of restraint. Jung’s aptly named, unquenchably randy Austrian peer, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), exemplifies the latter: Repress nothing. For a stretch, Jung does not, and he begins to give himself over, emotionally and sexually, to Spielrein, whose area of study includes the ego’s sexual barriers.
Fassbender might be the movies’ most naturally yet neurotically carnal actor. He must know this. He keeps choosing parts that hinge on the dilemma of his libido - his struggles with it, the struggle women have resisting him. There are theaters that will play “A Dangerous Method’’ right next to Steve McQueen’s “Shame,’’ the ludicrous sex-addiction drama that also stars Fassbender. There’s more fascinating trouble for him to get into with Cronenberg. The material’s much stronger, and Cronenberg isn’t at all uncomfortable with Fassbender’s sexuality. He’s made three movies with Mortensen (“A History of Violence’’ and “Eastern Promises’’ were the first two), so he’s had some practice.
It’s possible that in lusting after Mortensen all these years, we’ve taken his talent for granted. Of course, we really didn’t know how talented he was until he started working with Cronenberg. This is the best thing Mortensen’s ever done. His slow, paunchy, hairy Freud has a cavalier authority and a capacity for drollery. He’s also seductively wise in a way that makes both Fassbender and Knightley, as very good as they are, also seem uncharacteristically callow. I don’t know where Mortensen found this physical and psychological heaviness, this expressive inexpressiveness, but now isn’t the time to start a diet.Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.