Even in her wild agitation — barely able to force out words, writhing in her seat — Sabina Spielrein's puzzlement is clear. Her new physician proposes that she sit in a chair and he sit in a chair behind her and they talk about what might be causing such a state. And thus, in a Swiss hospital in 1904, is born the practice of psychoanalysis, the root of modern psychology/psychiatry and much of our understanding of the human mind.
It's also the beginning of the relationship between Sabina (Keira Knightley) and her doctor, Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), which will cycle through many stages and, according to the version of this real-life story told in David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, shape both the relationship between Jung and his idol/soon-to-be-mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and the development of psychological theory itself. It's a fascinating account and an enormously rich movie, though it works best when talk gets out of the way.
Freud had come up with the idea of "the talking cure," but had never actually tried it on a patient. When Jung does — and succeeds in bringing Sabina's mania under control enough for her to begin studying psychoanalysis herself — the two men become colleagues and friends. Jung's relationship with Sabina precipitates the differences and disagreements lurking beneath Jung and Freud's professional and personal relationship, leading to a dramatic split from which their bond never recovered.
Between unpacking the development of analysis, limning the mores and understandings of European society in the early 20th century, and filling out the intricate triangle between Sabina, Jung, and Freud, Cronenberg has a lot to cover. When Mortensen first appears in his built-out nose and grayed temples as Freud, worries flutter about a full descent into school-play terrain — plot points ticked off, every conversation conveniently serving as a philosophical debate, etc.
Christopher Hampton's script sings as often as it's stilted, and the top-flight cast imbues these stiff-collared historical figures with life. Indeed, what makes A Dangerous Method most compelling is its exploration of the messy contradictions of the people who set themselves the task of bringing scientific rigor to understanding the subconscious.
Over the course of the film, Sabina's intelligence and passion shine through convincingly. Likewise, Fassbender contrasts Jung's ramrod uprightness with the heedless urges welling under his shirtfront, navigating the shoals of fidelity and transgression, suppression and expression in each key relationship. And then there's Mortensen's Freud, a courtly eminence whose radical theoretical leap about the basis of psychological unrest in sexual problems contrasts with his utter rigidity to considering any other option. It's the opportunity to get an unbidden glimpse inside these heads that makes all the talk worthwhile.