On the couch with Jung, Freud

Keira Knightley and Michael Fassbender in A Dangerous Method.
Keira Knightley and Michael Fassbender in A Dangerous Method.
Published Jan. 25, 2012

A Dangerous Method (R) (99 min.) — Sexuality hasn't been the same since Sigmund Freud proposed it's the primary reason for anyone doing anything. Generations since have taken his suggestion to withhold repressing urges just about as far as they can. A movie about Freud's philosophies is right up the alley of director David Cronenberg, whose films often view sexuality as a clue to what hides beneath personalities.

A Dangerous Method, adapted by Christopher Hampton from his stage play The Talking Cure, doesn't make Freud the central character. That position goes to the professor's colleague Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), who is initially devoted to Freud's theories in his own practice but starts having doubts that sex is the reason for everything in human behavior. At the same time, Jung's libido is steering his life.

Jung has a patient named Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), who arrived as severely hysterical, a condition the doctor uses Freud's "talking cure" procedure of psychoanalysis to identify as masochism learned in childhood. Jung hires Spielrein as a research assistant while continuing her therapy, a decision raising suspicion in his wife of convenience, Emma (Sarah Gadon). Nothing illicit happens at first, with Jung repressing his feelings for professional reasons.

Every urge needs a triggering effect, and Jung's is the arrival of another patient, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), a psychologist committed by his father after a deviant lifestyle. Otto perfectly reads the relationship between doctor and patient, prodding Jung to carry out his desire, and soon Jung begins fulfilling Spielrein's with spankings.

Meanwhile, Jung tries hiding his indiscretions from Freud (Viggo Mortensen), who doesn't appear often yet his rationalization of everything through sex hangs over each frame of Cronenberg's film. Mortensen plays him with the puffed-up authority of an expert in a science so new that nothing he says can be refuted. Jung's doubt and professional breach with Spielrein are revealed, and the resulting chasm between innovators reverberates among scholars today.

The pleasure of Cronenberg's movie is hearing these characters speak so eloquently on the subject of sex, and watching actors raise their game a bit for it. Cronenberg again dabbles in kinky behavior, but here it doesn't seem as forced as the automobile erotica of Crash, or the gynecological horrors of Dead Ringers. A Dangerous Method is a movie believing the most formidable sex organ really is the brain. B+ (BayWalk 20 in St. Petersburg, Woodlands Square 20 in Oldsmar)

Steve Persall, Times movie critic