David Cronenberg’s career path over recent years has taken him away from the body horror with which he made his name to dramas that bring the psychological aspect to the forefront. This trajectory has now, quite logically, led him to this: a film about the fathers of psychoanalysis and the woman who was the catalyst for their separation.
Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) takes on the case of Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a hysterical woman he treats with “The Talking Cure”, created by Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). But the relationship between Carl and Sabina grows complicated as the upright monogamist gives in to his baser urges.
Cronenberg is not a director unfamiliar with ideas of sexuality or the idea of how society frowns on what it sees as aberrance. From his early work with Shivers and Rabid to perhaps his most notorious film Crash, the director is clearly fascinated with the issue. So a film about Jung’s torrid affair with a patient with masochistic sexual tendencies seems like the perfect film for him.
Everything in this film is bathed in sunlight and warm domesticity. Psychoanalysis and perversion are discussed on pleasant strolls or over dinner. It’s a contrast that serves the film well, and is nicely acknowledged at a family meal at Freud’s home. Jung lives by a beautiful Swiss lake and is often to be found taking a walk through the woods or taking his boat out on the lake. Freud, meanwhile, is a man of creature comforts: smoking, drinking and eating. It’s when the film shows the deteriorating father-son relationship between the two men that it’s at its best. For all the much publicised spanking, the relationship between Jung and Sabina is never as involving as it needs to be.
Mortensen gets to show another side as the increasingly prickly mentor, while Fassbender gives another excellent performance as the clipped Presbyterian who finds that it’s difficult to close a door once it’s been opened. There’s also a fine turn from Vincent Cassel as the Otto Gross, the sex addict psychiatrist who appears to whisper exactly the right, or wrong, words in Jung’s ear at the right moment. Then there’s Knightley. The actress goes for broke with a physical performance that frankly doesn’t quite work.
For a Cronenberg film it’s surprisingly bright, leisurely, and not particularly challenging. There’s a fascinating study of the relationship between Freud and Jung here with some wonderfully observed mentor-protégé friction, but it’s a shame that the depiction of the affair that ruptured it never quite comes off.
An intriguing psychological study with superb performances from Mortensen and Fassbender. It’s lesser Cronenberg but certainly worth a look.