A Dangerous Method (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
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A Dangerous Method (2011)

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Of the great Oscar snubs you will hear and read about in the coming weeks there has been a noticeable lack of people wondering why A Dangerous Method wasn't nominated for anything.  It had the air of a prestige picture with David Croenenberg directing the story of someone he clearly admires, a cast led by the white-hot Michael Fassbender, and a screenplay by the Oscar-winning Christopher Hampton based on his own play.  Given how interesting A History of Violence and Eastern Promises utilized the theory of evolution, it seemed a sure-fire stylistic and philosophical slam-dunk to gather these elements in telling the story of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud.

Here's the secret, not too many people are complaining because A Dangerous Method is secretly terrible and horrible at hiding that fact.  Maybe folks didn't complain because Fassbender was having a good year and didn't want to state how wooden and unchanging his performance was.  Perhaps they saw Cronenberg fail to do a single interesting thing with the visuals and postulated he was tired from his previous successes.  Or maybe audiences are as full of pomp, simplicity and weighty nothing as this film is.

A Dangerous Method has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the worst films of 2011 I didn't get to see last year, and the greatest issue is with the screenplay.  Hampton's play is unseen by myself and, at this point, given the complete lack of narrative thrust I can't imagine this played any better onstage.  The story jumps between years at a time, leaving all the real growth and development of Jung (Fassbender) and Freud's (Viggo Mortensen) offscreen and leading to a staggering number of very real problems in Jung's life being hurled onscreen at random intervals.

One second, Jung is a reserved man, and in the other he's ranting about paranormal events and telepathy.  Then the screen fades and it's brought up only one more time toward the end of the film.  Only those grounded in the history of Jung will have the slightest clue of what is going on and those lucky few (as I count myself among them) should be further angered at how A Dangerous Method completely botches the man's entire life.  Jung written as a character is conceived so poorly the film goes into Fatal Attraction territory for his sessions with the troubled Sabina (Keira Knightley) then into The Age of Innocence when they're alone in a boat.  Fassbender responds to this, in his first bad performance, by failing to change facial expressions the entire movie.

Fassbender is a typically amazing performer who brings nothing to Jung save this consistently stern expression.

There's subtle acting, and then there's comatose, a category I never hoped to use Fassbender in.  Worse off is Knightley, coming down from a trio of great performances in arthouse hits like Atonement, who quite literally chews the screen during her first forty minutes of screen-time.  Her performance is hypnotically bad, contorting her face as if her lower jaw is trying to consume her nose, writhing her arms abound as if they were tree limbs and speaking in an atrocious Russian accent.  Given her Sabina's history with abuse and secret sexual arousal from it very little of her performance decisions make sense and, at times, become embarrassing.

What really pushed A Dangerous Method into full-blown hatred is the haphazard way it presents psychoanalysis and comes to an idiotic conclusion about the treatment.  The editing and story rhythms combined with years of off-screen character development equate success in psychoanalysis with beating the sexually frustrated patient.  Treatment is presented as largely ineffective and instead a nice harsh spanking is just what Sabina needed.  There's nothing wrong with someone wanting a good spank now and again, but the way it equates the act as part of "treatment" via juxtaposition is deplorable.

Those conclusions aside, there are parts of A Dangerous Method far superior to the whole.  I liked the way women loomed large in the frames of Jung and Freud, and the way Cronenberg makes an argument separate from the editing and writing through those visuals that psychoanalysis was just a way to try and understand women more.  There were also a few moments of visual fun, as when he takes a small tour around Jung's mood-measuring contraption as if it were from a science fiction film.

Keira has done some great work, but "crazy" is not in her repertoire.

Even the acting isn't a complete waste.  Vincent Cassel shows up for a series of great scenes but promptly disappears, apparently having served his role in the film to say 'You should like sex more" to Jung.  Finally, Mortensen is absorbing and charming as Freud and seems to be the only one enjoying the role.  But since A Dangerous Method doesn't bother to give us any real detail about Freud his presence is more as a friendly cypher.

A Dangerous Method is a sad disappointment starting with the script, which informed every other bad decision made regarding this film.  For now, I'll just chalk this film up to a brief apoplectic episode, and hope he gains more clarity for his next feature.

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A Dangerous Method (2011)

Directed by David Cronenberg.
Screenplay by Christopher Hampton.
Starring Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortensen and Keira Knightley.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. Good review Andrew. The performances are good, even though Knightley may be over-acting quite a bit, and it looks great, but the film also just feels like a series of vignettes with no real feeling or drama to it. Basically what I’m trying to say was that I was bored and this story just never really got off the ground.

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