Freud and Jung face off: Whose is bigger? (a review of “A Dangerous Method”)

A Dangerous Method is smart, entertaining, and provocative, but it’s still a surprisingly flat fictionalization of key moments in the relationship — first cordial and supportive but later bitter and divisive — between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. Director David Cronenberg tells the story with appropriate intelligence, but the characters never quite came alive for me.

The narrative primarily focuses on Jung, played Michael Fassbender as a stilted and emotionally undeveloped intellectual. His idealism is dogged by his feelings of inadequacy around Viggo Mortensen’s even more stilted Freud and by his lust for patient-then-former-patient-turned-psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein, played by Keira Knightley in a performance that would have benefited from a bit more subtlety.

Vincent Cassel’s Otto Gross, an early disciple of Freud who advocated sexual freedom, briefly enters the movie and challenges Jung’s sometimes-rigid theories and ethics. But the libertine Gross is gone too soon.

A Dangerous Method, which screened last night at the Savannah Film Festival, gives us a glimpse of Jung as he experiments for the first time with the revolutionary “talking cure.” We get a taste of the intellectual challenges to Freud’s reliance on sex as the root of psychological problems. Late in the film, Spielrein leads us into theories of sex and surrender that would eventually be adopted and transformed by Freud, although mysteriously the words “Eros” and “Thanatos” aren’t in Christopher Hampton’s high-minded screenplay.

The film even includes a scene with a half-naked Spielrein — a sadist from childhood onward — bound to a bedpost while getting whipped, hard, by her lover Jung. But we never feel the passion between the characters, and when Jung weeps with his head on her lap, I was left wondering what I had missed. When did he care this much?

At one point I even found myself nostalgically recalling Cronenberg’s The Brood. A gang of deformed children lured out of mentally ill patients’ bodies by Oliver Reed would have really livened things up.