Provocative, engaging, and tremendously acted, this play-based drama centers around Carl Jung and his relationships with Sigmund Freud and a particularly traumatized former patient during the dawn of the 20th century. When the film opens, Freud has already made his mark, and Jung is gamely attempting to follow in his footsteps by implementing his “talking cure” in his work, beginning with a fragile young woman in his care, named Sabina Spielrein. Through psychoanalysis, he deduces that her crippling social ails are due to sadomasochistic tendencies instigated by beatings from her father. Essentially rid of her paralyzing anxiety, she sets out to become a psychologist in her own right under Jung’s tutelage; however, their increasingly intimate relationship, alongside persistent rumors of the two, causes Jung to distance himself from the troubled woman just as she is learning to trust her intuition and becoming a stronger, more assertive woman. Meanwhile, Jung begins a pen-pal relationship with Freud in Vienna that evolves into a more personal working relationship. While they agree on the fundamentals of psychoanalysis, Jung challenges Freud’s sex-obsessed teachings, while Freud flippantly dismisses Jung’s paranormal and superstitious curiosities. Spielrein complicates matters futher when, dismissed by Jung, she seeks Freud’s tutelage just as his tensions with Jung are beginning to dominate their relationship.
Many people who have seen the film have expressed displeasure at the lack of extreme violence or perverse sexuality (or both), typical of director David Cronenberg; however, once one accepts the more intimate, conversation-heavy tone of the film, the complexities and nuances of the script, staging, and performances make themselves abundantly clear. The script, while based on a play, keeps the story moving by jumping from location to location, and skipping large amounts of time to highlight only the time the three principals interact. This allows Cronenberg to implement a toned-down version of his visual flourishes without betraying the intimate, character-based nature of the project. The dialogue itself is a delight, traversing a line between the Victorian-era niceties and demeanor that all three are enslaved by and the progressive, indiscriminate language necessary to pursue their studies. When the characters (and Cronenberg) flex their more perverse, psychosexual muscles, it is only in small, potent bursts that, nonetheless, manage to reveal their toned-down lifestyles for the farces they actually are. I actually think this restraint makes the film an improvement over Cronenberg’s last two (admittedly terrific) pictures, which let their ultraviolence overwhelm any profundities or nuances they had to offer.
Cronenberg’s other masterstroke was his casting of Michael Fassbender and Keira Knightley as the two conflicted, wide-eyed students of psychology. Fassbender, in his 5 millionth role of the past year (Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class, Shame, and Haywire), demonstrates his massive range with his depiction of the contradictorily restrained and trailblazing Jung. Caught in the intersection of the 19th and 20th centuries, he battles with formalism, forced upon him by his marriage to a wealthy aristocrat, and liberalism, necessary to engage with psychosexual matters with the frankness he requires. Keira Knightley, as the object of Fassbender’s begrudging fascination, also delivers a powerhouse performance as the victim of both personal and external prejudices. At the outset, she can barely function, wrenching incoherent thoughts out of her frail body as if the right words could bring her salvation. Once Jung helps assuage her more debilitating instincts, she becomes more and more empowered, coming to grips with her sexuality, her intellect, and, eventually, her unique perspective on the human psyche. It is the most complex, intense, and purely physical work I’ve seen from Ms. Knightley, and I certainly hope that this kind of thing will appear on her resume more than the haughty costume dramas she seems to like so much. Viggo Mortensen, despite receiving billing over Fassbender, has more of a smallish role as the wise, yet wary Freud, but he is successful at eschewing his broody tough-guy persona and makes a convincing figure out of the trailblazing doctor. Vincent Cassel, as a former psychoanalyst who becomes Jung’s patient, makes the most of his screentime, humanizing a voracious, near-sociopathic character that could’ve very easily been a caricature. The quiet scenes with Fassbender and Cassel where their characters reflect on their distinctive views of life and humanity are a highlight of the picture, and it stings a little when Cassel abruptly exits the picture; with a little more screentime, he might’ve walked away with the movie, as he did in Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises. But it really is mostly Fass and Knightley’s show, and they are more than capable of levitating the words and direction off the screen and into the memory.
Highly Recommended to fans of the cast, Cronenberg’s more low-key work (Spider, The Dead Zone), or of similarly-themed psychological dramas. It speaks way more to the ADD nature of today’s audiences and critics that the film is being somewhat ignored than it does to the quality of the film itself; perhaps, in the end, I feel that adapting plays into Hollywood films will never be a seamless proposition in terms of reception, regardless of quality, due to their very nature.