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Using Sigmund Freud's (Viggo Mortensen) controversial and untested psychoanalysis methods, psychiatrist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) treats neurotic Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), when she is brought to his Zurich clinic in 1904. Spielrein's condition improves and she becomes not only Jung's research assistant but also his mistress. Meanwhile Jung goes to Vienna to meet his mentor Freud and the two men strike up a strong professional bond and friendship. But their relationship is put under strain as Jung starts to question the dogmatic views that Freud holds, namely that all neuroses have a sexual origin.

Review by Louise Keller:
Sex is the subject matter of David Cronenberg's riveting depiction of the relationship between Jung and Freud, although it is words, not passion that bring the sizzle. Like a multi-faceted gem under the microscope, the impact of sex is examined from different angles. It's a fascinating film, not the least being for the extraordinarily subtle, yet potent performance by Viggo Mortensen, who Cronenberg directed in his last two films, A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007). Mortensen the actor hides behind a full beard and is seemingly swallowed by the intensity of the understated, indelible persona of Siegmund Freud; we can almost smell the aroma of the cigar on which he chomps throughout the film.

The expose is an intellectual see-saw in which Mortensen is balanced by the ever-impressive Fassbender as Jung, as the film explores the complex relationship between the two psychoanalyst giants and the woman who becomes a pivot between the two. It is the early 20th century and the action see-saws also between Switzerland, where Carl Jung practices and Vienna, where Jung's mentor Freud lives and works.

The erudite Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons, Atonement) has adapted his play The Talking Cure and John Kerr's book A Most Dangerous Method to deliver a superb screenplay that moulds sex, dreams, psychoanalysis and philosophy into a gripping drama of relationships.

The film's main flaw lies in the mannered, slightly hysterical performance by Keira Knightley as Sabina Spielrein, the Jewish Russian patient who Jung treats using Freud's methods. The way Knightley distorts her jaw borders on the ridiculous and her pronounced, pseudo-Russian accent sits at odds with the perfect English enunciation effected by Mortensen and Fassbender.

In the opening scene we meet Spielrein being forcibly restrained and transported in a horse-drawn carriage to Jung's Clinic in Zurich. Jung is the voice of reason and restraint to the shrieking, out-of-control, sex-crazed woman who admits to becoming sexually aroused by acts of violence. Jung persists in his treatment by talking and listening to Spielrein. Her condition improves dramatically and it is when he invites her to assist him in his research, it is clear, despite Jung's denial, he is sexually infatuated by her.

The best scenes are those between Mortensen and Fassbender; the first time they meet is in Vienna when Jung goes to meet his mentor. Their initial conversation goes non-stop for 13 hours. It is the nuances and the content of their conversations that captivate and the ambience of Freud's office, his desk replete with phallic symbols. I especially like the scenes in which Freud analyses the dreams that Jung vividly describes. Sex is always the underlying issue. The tension between the two men mounts as their views conflict: Freud insists that sex is an underlying factor in every neurosis while Jung, interested in spiritualism and the occult, is disappointed by what he considers to be Freud's 'rigid pragmatism'.

Vincent Cassel is well cast as Otto Gross, the erratic, coke-snorting psychoanalyst who Freud asks Jung to treat. Cassel, looking very inch the out of control wild-man with a healthy enthusiasm for sex, conveys the passion the rest of the film avoids. We do not miss the irony as the patient becomes the doctor when Gross convinces Jung there is no more stressful concept than that of monogamy and that he should give in to his urges. That is when Jung oversteps the mark of professional relationships and intimate scenes of his spanking and whipping Spielrein follow. Sarah Gadon is fine as Jung's rich, tolerant and ever-pregnant wife Emma and Jung's mental anguish following his torrid affair with Spielrein is well handled.

The film feels considerably longer than its neat 99 minute running time, largely due to the wordy nature of the subject matter. Much is made of the correspondence between Jung and Freud and there is a nice sense of place between Jung's Swiss residence and the establishment of 20th century Vienna. Howard Shore's music score is nicely understated, complementing what is surely one of Viggo Mortensen's best roles.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Using John Kerr's book as his starting point, Christopher Hampton first adapted it for the stage before writing this screenplay. But perhaps inevitably, it's a skipping-stone screenplay and one skip-jump is especially odd, surprising us with a pregnant Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), married for almost two years since we last saw her.

Given that her affair with Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) is such a major part of the film, it's a strange jump. We feel we have a right to know who she married, why and how...

Unusual for the talented Hampton, the script seems to be trying to fit in too much information, its focus swaying between the various strands of the story. Of course, real life is just like that; it's not a simple arc we live.

Perhaps it should have been a mini-series to adequately explore the birth of psychoanalysis. Both Jung and Freud (Viggo Mortensen) were iconic figures in the new field of medical science - which has burgeoned into one of our most frequently used (but still mysterious) professions.

The film's own mystery is why Knightly alone affects an indeterminate accent that is meant to say that English was not Sabina's first language (she was born in Russia but learnt German). This is odd as all the other German-speaking characters (in real life) speak English with a neutral accent; Jung and Freud spoke in German, of course, as did Jung's wife, Emma (Sarah Gadon).

But performances are otherwise fine; Mortensen's Freud doesn't match the usual image of the great man - not that this is necessarily a bad thing. He's less rotund and more acerbic in a restrained sort of way.

Fassbender's Jung is a more straightforward character, and through him we see some of the professional issues that the story tries to explore. It doesn't quite manage it clearly enough, and this weakens the film's impact.

The film depicts Spielrein as a masochist, and Jung manages to spank her well enough to satisfy her - but not us, alas. The sexuality of the Spielrein character - who takes centre stage for much of the film - tips the balance in the fight for our attention and interest. The wordy exchanges between Jung and Freud seem esoteric by contrast. Perhaps this is intentional. Cronenberg is an eccentric filmmaker whose intelligence is never in doubt. Perhaps he is laying the ground for Spielrein's theory (explored late in the film) which holds that the sexual drive is both destructive and transformative.

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(UK/Germany/Canada/Switz, 2011)

CAST: Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, Vincent Cassel, Sarah Gadon, Andre Hennicke, Arndt Schwering-Sohnrey, Mignon Reme, Marieke Carriere

PRODUCER: Jeremy Thomas

DIRECTOR: David Cronenberg

SCRIPT: Christopher Hampton (play by Hampton, book by John Kerr)


EDITOR: Ronald Sanders

MUSIC: Howard Shore


RUNNING TIME: 99 minutes

AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Transmission/Paramount


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