A Dangerous Method / David Cronenberg / 2011 / fourstar

Active Ingredients: Acting; Period details; Use of framing to emphasize theme
Side Effects: Overly talky; Insufficient exploration of psychological theories

[A gala presentation of A Dangerous Method comes to the New York Film Festival today.]

Canadian master David Cronenberg has had a long, varied career, but his last three films mark an intriguing shift. In the 80s, Cronenberg excelled at crafting maddening “body-horror” films, strange tales of transformation and insanity like The Fly and Videodrome. Since 2005’s A History of Violence, however, these external themes have become internalized, couched within thriller frameworks, no less potent but now hiding behind impeccable craft. A Dangerous Method continues this interesting mid-career trend for the director and proves both his technical mastery and the fascinating uniformity of his body of work.

In A Dangerous Method, the brilliant young actor Michael Fassbender plays Carl Jung, an intense intellectual, a stiff-collared psychoanalyst with a lot of his own repression. A beautiful, hysterical patient threatens to undermine his clinical credibility and tempt him into succombing to submerged, kinky sexual desires, lurking beneath the vernear of his quiet, civilized, upper-class lifestyle. Jung also begins an explosive meeting of minds with mentor Sigmund Freud, who seeks to entrust the progress of psychoanalysis in the hands of a pupil who will think only as he does. The pair of giants intellectually fence in a complex game of authority and power.

Cronenberg’s skill as a visual director is immediately apparent, and he animates numerous talky scenes with expressive deep-focus photography and beautiful desaturated hues. The ever-shifting relationships among the three central characters is perfectly drawn within Cronenberg’s geometric framings, placing characters in front, behind or to the side of each other to emphasize the flow of power. Ultimately, despite the efforts of Cronenberg, his actors and the production designers responsible for the convincing period details, the material feels static and betrays its history as a stage play. It raises fascinating parallels between theories of psychology and the minds who discovered them, but can only draw these connections through dialogue. For example, a mid-film sequence featuring a visit from a bearded Vincent Cassel is all too obviously calculated to introduce Jung’s self-doubt. The problem with A Dangerous Method, then, is that, despite its title, it isn’t narratively dangerous. Other Cronenberg films, including his recent efforts, feel volatile and unsettling: they could go anywhere at any moment. A Dangerous Method, on the other hand, is full of good ideas with no daring.