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David Cronenberg has developed a most remarkable director’s eye. A “History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises” are straightforward in conception that you almost wonder if a trick is being pulled. You have to squint at his films to recognize anything unusual is going on since the effect is so subtle. But his angle’s are slightly off, and his medium shots just a bit too wide, as if he’s trying to maintain a clinical distance from his subjects, standing a few feet back from the bug pinned to the board in order to take the full measure of the grotesquerie. What Cronenberg engages in is the slow and methodical peeling back of layers to reveal the inner workings of these characters’ lives and natures, and A Dangerous Method is no exception. The real underlying thread of the movie is the unpleasant truth that self-knowledge does not beget self-control or self-improvement: that to understand the dark and animalistic drives behind human behavior is futile, as such understanding provides no useful capacity for change or alteration.

At the opening, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) is taken to see Dr. Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), an early psychoanalysis pioneer, to be treated for mental trauma. Jung eventually uncovers that Sabina was sexually excited by the punishment and abuse she suffered from her father, a circumstance which has lead to both shame and dysfunction in the young woman. The case brings Jung to meet with the erudite and imposing Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), whose ground-breaking theories of human psychology posit sexuality as the fundamental driving force of our nature. Freud becomes a mentor and confidant of the younger Jung. Meanwhile, Sabina and Jung embark on an affair based around her still-vibrant need and Jung’s repressed desires. At the same time they create a mutually shared intellectual work, which both applies and reinvents Freud’s brutally cold-eyed psychoanalytic methods.

Knightley brings Sabina alive with an intense and clipped Russian precision, as well as a remarkable set of nervous physical ticks, as if she’s constantly trying to gnaw her way out of some full-body veil. Sabina eventually comes to grips with her shame and her neurosis, but that does not mean her ingrained sexual urges have lost any of their potency. So she continues to seek them out even as she grows into her own as a woman and an intellectual. Meanwhile, Viggo Mortensen, capable as always, reveals Freud as a man detached and knowledgeable and yet still in need of friendship and validation. Even with all their learning, the foundational contours of Freud and Jung’s relationship remain that of schoolyard friends – with all the jealousies, giddiness, and petty disputes that entails.

As for Jung himself, Fassbender pulls off the unusual trick of portraying repression as the expression of honestly held values, rather than of any craven urges or underlying damage. Jung attempts to adhere to his Victorian pose because he earnestly believes it is proper, but as a psychologist he is also familiar with the underlying animal needs and darker urges that drive human beings to rebel against the Victorian code. Thus he is disappointed by his own infidelity, yet it also provokes no grand existential crisis of meaning or character. Jung does not appear fundamentally unhappy in his marriage, nor is his wife ever anything but supportive, invested, intelligent and attractive. His tragedy is that despite all the tools available to him to remake his own psychology, despite his regret and his understanding of why he commits the violation, he still helplessly succumbs to the mercurial desire for infidelity.

Similarly, Cronenberg regards his characters with the bored patience of clinician who has seen all manner of human dysfunction, and who no longer feels the need for great existential hand-wringing over the matter. He carefully works his way down through the layers of relation between Jung, Freud, and Sabina; observing their frailties without judgment, acknowledging the darkness without being dreary, and then politely departing to allow the audience to ruminate on what they have witnessed. A Dangerous Method is slow and quiet, and yet manages to be mesmerizing in its own subtle way.

Ultimately, Sabina and Jung decide that sexual repression is inherent to the human condition, as sex is an urge that’s both creative and destructive, and thus something against which the ego will naturally rebel, especially as it wishes to naturally indulge. As Jung ruefully observes near the end of the film, “Sometimes, you have to do something unforgivable just to be able to go on living.” It’s a hard and strange truth, but that is the way of it more often than not.