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'A Dangerous Method' review: Fascinating portraits of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung

For a period of nearly six years, Jung and Freud—bound by Freud’s conviction that Jung is his heir apparent, his “crown prince”— continue their personal and academic relationship—debating, refining, elaborating on the talking cure with its implicit danger of uncertain outcome as well as the possibility of transference between patient and doctor. During this time, Spielrein, a remarkably intelligent and attractive young woman, progresses from treatment to medical school where, with Jung’s encouragement, she plans to become a psychoanalyst herself.

We witness these developments from Jung’s perspective. Fassbender gives a complicated portrayal of a doctor moved and stimulated by his patient professionally, but devoted to Teutonic values of self-reliance and self-control in his personal conduct and benevolently aloof towards his wife and growing family. And as we know, still waters run deep.

Not until Freud thrusts another patient, a psychiatrist who has flagrantly abandoned all sexual and social mores, on his disciple does Jung recognize just how dangerous words can be. He is, he admits, seduced by his sessions with the depraved Dr. Otto Gross, played quite gleefully by Vincent Cassel, who berates Jung for not having sexual relations with the obviously enamored Sabina.

Their ensuing relationship exposes both Jung and Spielrein to the extremes of her sexual fantasies and ends up destroying Jung’s self-esteem and, finally the friendship and respect of his one-time mentor. In truth, the rift has been long in the making, dating back to Freud’s early discovery that the handsome young Arian he has anointed as his successor enjoys the worldly benefits and luxuries of marriage to a very wealthy woman. With glimpses of pettiness, Mortensen makes us conscious that envy and an ever-present sensitivity to anti-Semitism are intrinsic to Freud’s nature. When Jung starts to challenge Freud’s insistence on the sexual origin mental illness, it is the last straw.

Cronenberg elicits remarkable performances from his principals as well as from Gadon, a new Canadian actress, and Cassel, best known for his role in “The Black Swan.” While the three principals never actually share the screen at one time, their influence on each other, their mutual physical and intellectual attraction, makes this a consistently fascinating film, one we’ll undoubtedly hear more about as awards season approaches.

“A Dangerous Method” opened Nov. 23.

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