Imagine an Indian film on psychiatry and psychoanalysis. We would have a spooky mansion, ghostly figures in white walking in the middle of the night with their ankle bells making weird noises and a psychiatrist jumping around trying to better a circus trapeze artist. Not just this, a few songs will punctuate these eerie goings-on. Why, Bhool Bhulaiya is a good, recent example with Akshay Kumar playing psychiatrist to Vidya Balan’s mental illness.
Contrast this with the David Cronenberg movie, A Dangerous Method, I saw this morning at the 68th Venice International Film Festival, now on at Lido. Set in the early years of 1900, Cronenberg’s (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and Crash) work tells the story of Sigmund Freud, psychiatrist Carl Jung and their beautiful patient, Sabina Spielrein. She not only messes the wonderful relationship between these two great pioneers of psychoanalysis, but also helps them enrich their theories, even discover some facets and add on to what they know.
A married with kids Jung finds himself drawn to Spielrein, and he breaks the doctor-patient code by having a sexual affair with her. This affects Jung’s relationship with Freud, the ties already having been strained by the two men’s opposing views on treatment. Freud believes that every mental disorder can somehow be traced to sexual problems, while Jung does not quite adhere to this, choosing instead to look at mysticism as well.
Cronenberg hits the nail with great precision as he takes us to Zurich and Vienna that were the 1900s setting for sexual and intellectual discovery. Elegantly mounted and absolutely gripping despite the movie remaining mostly indoors, A Dangerous Method has the added advantage of some marvellous performances. Fassbender as Jung and Mortensen as Freud are brilliant, and Knightley more than manages to hold on against these two men, though there are times when it appears that she overdoes a little.
The movie adapted by Christopher Hampton, from his play The Talking Cure (in turn, based on John Kerr's book, A Most Dangerous Method) is, in spite of its complex subject, one of the most straightforward Cronenberg has ever made.
Though the film’s underlying theme is sexuality – and there are even a few scenes of Knightley’s bottom being spanked – A Dangerous Method is really about the mind, the yearning for love and the guilt of betraying a professional code. Not so much the personal, as it would seem.
Some picturesque locales in Switzerland and Vienna help the work to find a degree of calm in an atmosphere charged with sexual lust and questionable moral ethics. Extremely verbose, but the movie holds one’s attention with its elegant indoor settings and an energetic camera that keeps us excited every second of the 99 minutes.
With requests now pouring in for publishing the beautiful letters that Jung wrote to Spielrein, A Dangerous Method, based on the true story of these three people, gains greater topicality and significance.
In English language, the movie will delight India’s multiplex audiences. But is there a willing distributor?
(Gautaman Bhaskaran has been covering the Venice International Film Festival for a decade.