Screenwriter Christopher Hampton does so with arch detachment in A Dangerous Method, an artfully composed portrait of intellectual one-upmanship adapted from his 2002 stage play, The Talking Cure.
Set in the early 20th century, David Cronenberg’s film explores the scholarly battle of wits between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and his brilliant protege, Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) - two great thinkers who furthered our knowledge about human behaviour and the control exerted by the subconscious.
Sexual desire coursed beneath the surface of the Canadian director’s early work, reaching a climax in the deeply divisive, auto-erotic Crash.
The couplings here are clinical rather than erotic, sado-masochistic rather than salacious - a temporary salve to years of anguish and self-loathing.
Hampton’s screenplay is dense and wordy, providing Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley and Viggo Mortensen with meaty roles as the three points of a self-destruction triangle that ultimately gives birth to psychoanalysis.
In the same way that Freud and Jung coolly observe their patients, seeking answers in awkward silences, A Dangerous Method holds a magnifying glass up to the characters and stares unflinchingly into their blackened souls.
The film opens in 1904.
A deeply disturbed 18-year-old woman called Sabina Spielrein (Knightley) is admitted to Jung’s psychiatric clinic in Zurich and provides a fascinating subject.
Through conversations with Sabina, Jung delves into her emotional distress and he discovers that her relationship with an abusive father is at the root of her spasms and outbursts.
“Whenever he hit us, afterwards, we had to kiss his hand,” she grimaces during one counselling session.
The Swiss psychiatrist seeks guidance from Freud, who presides over the academic establishment with arrogance, espousing his theories on the human condition and his “talking cure” technique.
The two men galvanise a relationship of mutual respect and competition, challenging each other’s firmly held notions.
Freud asks Jung to treat psychologist Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), who embraces desire and encourages Jung to indulge pleasures forbidden by polite society.
Consequently, Jung and Sabina kindle a violent, sexual affair that propagates her destructive cycle and jeopardises the Swiss psychiatrist’s marriage to his wife Emma (Sarah Gadon).
A Dangerous Method is clinical and emotionally cold, distinguished by the performances of the central trio, including an eye-catching turn from Knightley laden with twitches and nervous tics.
Man of the moment Fassbender largely keeps his britches on, as a counterpoint to his no-holds-barred portrayal of a sex addict in Shame, while Mortensen oozes pomposity beneath a halo of cigar smoke.
Hampton’s screenplay is peppered with some smart one-liners (“Sometimes, you have to do something unforgivable to go on living”), providing Cronenberg with the sparks of eroticism that drive the various relationships to a sombre resolution.
By Damon Smith
:: SWEARING :: NO SEX :: VIOLENCE :: RATING: 7/10
Released: February 10 (London and key cities); February 17 (UK & Ireland, selected cinemas), 99 mins