David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method is about the talking cure - specifically, the kind of talk therapy pioneered by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung at the start of the 20th century.
Freud and Jung, however, nearly talk the audience to death in Cronenberg's bloodless, pokey film. Though his cast - including Michael Fassbender as Jung, Viggo Mortenson as Freud and Keira Knightley as the young woman about whose treatment they have a falling out - is outstanding, the film snails along as a high-minded discourse that doesn't know when to shut up.
Knightley plays Sabina Spielrein, a patient who comes to Jung to for the kind of psychoanalytic treatment that Freud has been developing. Spielrein is a mess - willful, wild, acting out in ways that seem to be textbook examples of Freud's theories. Eventually, we discover that they all seem to stem from a bad relationship with her father; as she eventually reveals, she derives sexual pleasure from being punished, particularly being spanked.
Before long, it's Jung who's doing the spanking - and other sexual things that seem to both pleasure and degrade his patient. As he discusses his treatment with Freud, his teacher, they begin to fall out over Freud's emphasis on sex as the root of all problems; Jung believes that those roots are more far-reaching. They also disagree about the propriety of having sex with the people you're trying to cure.
There's also the matter of Jung's wife, Emma (Sarah Gadon), who is well aware of her husband's extra-marital dalliances, even as he saddles her with a raft of children. Yet Jung, a remote intellectual sort, can't quite bring his feelings into alignment with his behavior. Who really needs the therapy here?
The conflicts, such as they are, have to do with Jung's crimes against his marriage and his disagreements with Freud about his treatment of and affair with Sabina (who went on to become one of the first female psychoanalysts). Freud argues against it as exploitive and damaging to his theories, already under attack because of his focus on sexual guilt as a source of psychological distress.
The problem is that little of this chatter is compelling. Though Cronenberg spices things up with scenes of Jung and Sabina at full gallop or involved in spanking sessions, the give-and-take between Jung and his wife and Jung and Freud are dry and dull, less dialogue than lecture - too much like the Christopher Hampton play from which it was adapted.
Indeed, the only danger in A Dangerous Method is that the viewer might doze off.
Find more reviews, interviews and commentary on my website.
Follow Marshall Fine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Marshall Fine