David Cronenberg's latest A Dangerous Method takes a step back from the director's body horror to explore those terrors that can besiege the mind, and indirectly cause the body to freeze up entirely. On some basic level, the film depicts nothing more than a simple falling-out between male friends over a girl, but Cronenberg reframes it as one of his chilly case studies, every scene a probing session of sorts. In 1904, at his clinic in Switzerland, Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) begins his analysis of Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a bright, virginal yet hysterical young woman brought in kicking and screaming, having suffered some trauma at her father's hands. Two years later in Vienna, with Sabina making reasonable progress, Jung meets up with his mentor Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and - over perfectly symbolic cigars - they set to discussing the girl's condition, and whether it might be rooted in some concealed sexual hang-up. Egged on by rogue analyst Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), Jung - married, with a child on the way - elects to ditch psychoanalytic theory in favour of his own hands-on practice, scheduling regular spanking sessions for his patient, and actively encouraging her to experience transference: a process Sabina - an aspirant analyst herself - is only too willing to engage with, offering up her maidenhood in lieu of monetary payment.
The film is perhaps best approached as a benchmark, demonstrating just how far Cronenberg has come: it remains something of a surprise that the man who once gave the world Shivers and The Brood (something of a precursor, with two men, one a doctor, fighting over another, deadlier hysteric) should now be turning out elegant, starry costume dramas written by Christopher Hampton. A Dangerous Method never strays too far from its stage origins - it's been opened up only minimally from Hampton's play The Talking Cure - but it's true Cronenberg has grown more fascinated by actors with age, and in particular by the way their exteriors somehow reveal interior states. Psychoanalysis has always lent itself very easily to this kind of actors' piece (see TV's In Treatment); here, Hampton's two-hand scenes come gradually to construct a complex love triangle, as Spielrein defects between doctors, in effect replacing one father figure with another.
Yet Jung and Freud, colleagues-turned-rivals, are members of the same stiff, inflexible patriarchy, keeping up their appearances in order to conceal all manner of flaws and hypocrisies - and the idea, explored not for the first time in a Cronenberg film, is that these doctors, for all their outward "respectability", may very well be as screwed-up as those individuals sent to them for treatment. After the hollow evasions of Shame, Fassbender here gives a creditably precise performance as the younger man: Jung is the more open of the two shrinks to new techniques and thinking - we see him enthusiastically discussing paranormal phenomena at one point - yet, as his choice of conversation matter only goes to show, he's also prone to a naivety that eventually leaves him outthought and outmanoeuvred, and on the verge of a breakdown of his own. Mortensen, in the smaller role, changes his entire appearance with the application of darkening contact lenses, the defining accoutrement for this two-faced, control-freak Freud, a member of Vienna's comfortable elite whose watchwords are "I wouldn't want to risk my authority."
As the dab of love-it-or-loathe-it Marmite between these crusty old beigels, Knightley is stuck with a Herzog-like, mitteleuropan accent that (as with the supporting players in Fincher's Dragon Tattoo) is meant to signify difference at best, abnormality at worst; she compounds it, in the film's opening scenes, with a tendency to jut her jaw at the camera repeatedly, as though she were working within a 3D movie. The performance has divided early viewers, yet one feels obliged to point out Sabina Spielrein is supposed to be hysterical, out of synch with the world around her, and the actress's continued willingness to play weird rather than merely pretty is laudable and wise: Knightley's big early gestures pay off when we start to see them recurring, in subtler yet more troubling form whenever the character backslides into neurosis. (I think it would need a more obviously feminine hand on the pen, or behind the camera, for A Dangerous Method to be considered truly feminist, but the film - or at least Knightley's performance - gestures towards a denunciation of the circumstances by which Spielrein, for all her spirit and intelligence, came to be at the mercy of such a rigidly ordered, masculine society.)
Of course, part of me wanted Cronenberg to roll up his sleeves and get back to the business of opening up his characters by less genteel means: we get flickers of the director of old, as when Spielrein takes a letter-opener to Jung's cheek, or whenever the latter takes his hand to his patient's buttocks - sudden, vivid, violent disruptions of the norm. Yet even the spanking here comes to be dressed up within the cosy confines of the costume drama. This is a film about a distant era, and in some ways about distant ideas: presumably it was safer for Cronenberg to make a Viennese whirl, and to film debates about monotheism and psychoanalytic practice, than it was for him to take a crack at Ballard's Crash, say.
The result is certainly dry and wordy, with elements that look to have been curtailed for budgetary reasons: Jung and Freud sail to New York at one point, but we never see them disembark, and after a couple of striking scenes, Cassel's Gross goes over a wall and disappears from sight. If A Dangerous Method compels - and it does, sort of - it's because it presents us with an obsessively internalised chamber drama, which is to acknowledge both its strengths and weaknesses. For all that the actors are working their carefully chosen socks off behind their mandibles, stiff collars and contact lenses, Cronenberg can't get at these characters' emotions the same way he unpicks their intellect. I suspect the film's ideal audience will themselves be psychoanalysts, who might like to observe while reclining on couches, notepads in hand: they, surely, will be the most aware that - in matters of the mind, and indeed of the body - some nuts are just tough to crack.
A Dangerous Method opens in selected cinemas from Friday.