Feb. 1 2012 12:00 AM

Cronenberg tackles 'Dangerous' material with style


Director David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method” starts with a bang — and a banshee — as a hysterical Sabrina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) enters the picture, howling and growling, threatening to rip off her gown and shred her skin. Although she’s a Russian aristocrat, she does not embody the stereotype of suffering in silence.

It’s 1904, and she´s being whisked away to the secluded Swiss clinic of psychiatrist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), who envisions Spielrein as a perfect candidate for his “talking cure.” Asked what kinds of interests she has, Spielrein sneeringly replies, “Suicide. Interplanetary travel.” Jung will also quickly learn she´s fascinated by spankings, even though they make her feel “vile and filthy and corrupt.”

Jung´s patient will become his secret lover, which jeopardizes his personal and professional relationship with his mentor, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). But when Freud and Spielrein finally meet, Freud´s stern stance is challenged.

Lurking on the edges of what could turn into a bizarre love triangle is Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), a doctor who has sought treatment from Jung and who´s not above making a diagnosis of his own.

“If there´s one thing I have learned in my short life, it´s this,” Gross declares. “Never repress anything.”

To Cronenberg, those must sound like words to live by. The filmmaker has never been one to soft-sell kinkiness or ignore the scarier side of human nature.

Even so, what´s most shocking about Cronenberg´s treatment of Christopher Hampton´s screenplay (adapted from John Kerr´s book, “A Most Dangerous Method”) is its unexpectedly low-key atmosphere. It is reminiscent of his 1988 shocker, “Dead Ringers,” in which Jeremy Irons played twin gynecologists; the movie was so calm and cool that only in the last third did you realize how creepy it was. 

The wild card in  “Method” is Knightley, who turns in a bold, daring and aggressively physical performance. Sabina´s fits seem to stop just short of turning her inside out: Her posture stiffens as if she´s being stretched on a torture rack, her jaw juts out, her eyes nearly burst out of their sockets. 

By contrast, Fassbender and Mortensen are nearly reduced to elegant wallflowers. Mortensen´s Freud is often dryly amusing, especially when he tries to maintain a pompous air in the powerhouse presence of Spielrein.

As Jung´s high-mindedness slowly disintegrates — “Why should we put so much effort into suppressing our most basic instincts?” he wonders as he contemplates an affair with Spielrein — Fassbender unveils a mass of conflicted emotions and unaddressed desires buried inside a seemingly upright, pipe-puffing family man. While Knightley may have the dramatic fireworks in her corner, Fassbender masterfully and subtly etches a portrait of a dedicated doctor who is utterly incapable of helping himself.