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A Dangerous Method (15)

Ryan Gilbey enjoys David Cronenberg's Freudian sight gags.

Ryan Gilbey enjoys David Cronenberg's Freudian sight gags.{C}

A Dangerous Method (15)
dir: David Cronenberg

Halfway through A Dangerous Method, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) are standing on the passenger deck of an ocean liner as it heaves into New York Harbour in the early 1900s. "Do you think they know we're on our way - bringing them the plague?" wonders the senior doctor. With its mouth-watering promise of contagion, that line is a riposte to anyone who doubted whether David Cronenberg was a sound choice to direct a film of The Talking Cure, Christopher Hampton's play about the origins of psychoanalysis. Cronenberg made his name with goo and gore, and aphrodisiac viruses. A Dangerous Method isn't so different. Just because you can't see those elements, it doesn't mean they're not there.

Whenever Cronenberg has ventured into the medical, it has usually been through the prism of a triangular relationship - an acrimonious divorce antagonised by a psychotherapist (The Brood), or twin gynaecologists sharing a patient (Dead Ringers). The third point of the triangle alongside Freud and Jung is Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a hysterical patient brought to Jung's Zurich clinic in 1904 and treated with experimental psychoanalysis.

Hampton's script, like his play, is comprised of short scenes that echo off one another in the manner of Jung's word association games. In this context, therapy can come across more like speed dating than In Treatment. The film is only three minutes old, for instance, when Jung nudges Sabina toward her first breakthrough. Modern practitioners would spin that one out for several years with the meter running.

Childhood beatings have fostered in Sabina a paralysing masochism. The sight of Jung thwacking her dusty coat with his cane is enough to send her into paroxysms of appalled delight. To be fair, this would be more vexing if Jung were played by someone other than Fassbender, who could transform the de-scaling of a kettle into an erotic act.

Freud wishes to police carefully the technique he has pioneered but this proves to be idealistic, and boundaries between the personal and professional are breached routinely. Jung's wife and benefactor, Emma (Sarah Gadon), is left at home to produce children while Sabina graduates from case study to assistant; she even spots Emma's anxiety about child-rearing. (It's almost funny that Jung, thrilled at Sabina's acuity, neglects to act on her insights about his own marriage.) Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), a psychiatrist-turned-patient with the look of a raggedy Pan, warns Jung of the hazards of repression. Grasping Otto's prescription for sex, Jung converts it without hesitation in Sabina's bed, leaving her with a crimson puddle on her nightgown.

The movie jumps straight from that glistening blood to the harbour where Emma presents her husband with the boat he wanted - the one with the red sails. Had Freud been a film-maker, he surely couldn't have done better than that snappy edit, that Freudian snip.

Sight gags give the film much of its perkiness and its dream logic. Cronenberg cuts from Jung's quip that "sane doctors have serious limitations" to a close-up of the wild-eyed Otto snorting cocaine; in another scene, a cutaway discloses the presence of onlookers in what we had assumed was a private conversation between Freud and Jung. The doctors themselves are often oblivious to the absurdity under their noses. Musing on the phallic imagery of one of Jung's dreams, Freud chomps on a cigar while Jung caresses the pipe protruding from his own mouth. It's not quite American Pie but the unspoken joke is characteristic of a film that answers questions in images rather than words.

The picture is light but not lightweight, with a richness of feeling from its performers (especially Mortensen, who can invest in an amused grunt the tonal complexity most actors reserve for soliloquies). The pacing is so brisk that it comes as a surprise when Freud and Jung's final showdown is so fraught and affecting; it seems plausible that someone's head will pop right there in the drawing room in a reprise of Cronenberg's Scanners. That, I suppose, would be the birth of psychoanalysis in a nutshell, one person's expanded mind being another person's exploding head.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.