Following the polished genre exercise of Eastern Promises, David Cronenberg aimed his gaze in the polar opposite direction: the tedious artistic pastime known as the historical costume drama. But the staid format of A Dangerous Method makes the perfect space for some of Cronenberg’s most subversive, penetrating and darkly comic work to date.

Adapted from Christopher Hampton’s play The Talking Cure, the film primarily focuses on a vital triangle at the heart of the history of psychoanalysis, two pairs of overlapping relationships. First, between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), an idol-worship scenario that degrades over time as the two men’s dueling ideologies drift further and further apart. But more importantly, the film explores a student/teacher paradigm of a different kind, with Jung and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a woman who begins as his patient before becoming his mistress.

The film, at its core, presents the way in which each of its principals’ approaches to psychoanalysis form through a slyly soap-operatic entanglement of repressed desires. It revels in the mutability of ideas and how the open, honest and self-aware tenor of the conversational process exposes the raw nerves at the foundation of the self.

Cronenberg, through his initially stolid framing and careful presentation, sets up the sort of sleepwalking approach to adapting theater that most movies set in the past tend to dispense with. But, in concert with Fassbender’s coiled performance and Knightley’s relentless, raw turn, he methodically turns the dial up, histrionic notch by histrionic notch. What begins as stuffy and reserved evolves into sharp, unsettling humor mixed with a chaotic kind of sexuality. It, as many of his later films feel, is a movie that only Cronenberg could have directed.

Tapping into a deeply horny vein that hadn’t been sapped so thoroughly since Crash, he gives life and form to Freud’s theories while simultaneously working to expose the hypocrisy in psychological academia, in how profoundly and routinely men sap observations and insight from the women in their lives. Fassbender feels like the star, obviously, but it’s Knightley’s fearless and delightfully unhinged turn that gives the film the air it needs to fan its considerable flames.

The primal energy that erupts between her and Fassbender through the pair’s tumultuous affair seems to scoff and tear at the film’s earlier, more formal tone. Cronenberg imbues the proceedings with the teeming, inner life of its protagonists through exponential variation in the film’s visuals and camera work, juxtaposing the stifled exterior of Jung and Freud with the less inhibited energy from Knightley and Vincent Cassel’s Dionysian take on Otto Gross.

The result is a picture that looks and feels, on the surface, like the time period it takes place in, but which moves and writhes with the unexplored depths its inhabitants, at the time, could only begin to plumb through circular dialogues that ensnared their respective worldviews like suffocating snakes. A Dangerous Method remains an exciting variation within the Master of Venereal Horror’s filmography, one that grows more engaging on each subsequent watch.

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