“You’ve always been something of a catalyst,” a bemused Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) tells his lover, analysand turned shrink Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. It’s a line typical of the film’s staginess: screenwriter Christopher Hampton adapted his own play, and though Cronenberg’s transitions are tart, every scene surrounds the dialogue, which consists of by no means unprovoking thematic exploration by conceptually conceived characters—like catalytic Sabina, who later writes a paper equating sex with both annihilation and creation. But the line also gets at something cinematic, since with A Dangerous Method, set at the dawn of the 20th century, we’re witnessing the primal scene of a key movie archetype: creatively destructive Eros as embodied by an unpredictable leading lady. Bespectacled Fassbender, with his clipped, lofy inflections, is as huggably square and prissy as Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve or Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby—he’s even caught with a milk mustache—and as Sabina brings chaos to Jung’s domestic arrangements, Jung and Freud (Viggo Mortensen) change the world with psycholanalysis, fossilized notions crashing away like Grant’s dinosaur skeleton.
The film begins with disruption, with hysteric Sabina’s arrival at Jung’s Swiss clinic—Knightley’s forced howling laughter and squintingly studied Russian accent seem as alarmingly contorted as her neurosis-gnarled musculature. Sabina’s soon unrepressed taste for S&M challenges mystic purist Jung; with Shame, opening a week later, A Dangerous Method makes a fortuitous and unique double bill spotlighting Michael Fassbender’s grimacing sexual exertions, but though my colleague Henry Stewart points to Shame as a Catholic-guilt allegory, it’s while whipping Knightley here that Fassbender most looks like he’s flagellating himself. Cronenberg sometimes shoots these scenes in a mirror, reinforcing Sabina’s thesis about sex in conflict with ego—the film generally takes her side against the cigars-and-brandy cabal. Still, it’s Mortensen who walks away with it, nodding or grunting meaningfully as acolyte Jung compares him to Galileo or resists his one-upsmanship, his every gesture a miracle of sanguine efficiency.