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Cronenberg on switching gears for 'A Dangerous Method'

The patient, a youthful 68, exhibits signs of confidence and relaxation that seem to contradict a known history of concern with unsavoury, morbid and unwholesome subjects associated with body mutilation, sexual punishment and repression. The doctor recommends further investigation.

Yes, David Cronenberg has done something rather shocking: He's made his first elegant and fairly conventional biopic, A Dangerous Method, about the birth pangs of psychoanalysis.

Talking about his film from a wingback chair in a hotel suite in Toronto, he calls his latest opus – appearing at the Toronto International Film Festival fresh from screenings at festivals in Venice and Telluride – an "intellectual ménage a trois." The movie depicts the relationship between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), his wayward protégé Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) – a Russian-Jewish student and patient of Jung's, who, since the discovery of her papers in the 1970s and 80s, has emerged as a significant link between the two giants of psychiatry.

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No doubt, all this is a change of pace for the director once dubbed the Baron of Blood.

"Criminals and low-lifes are fun," says Cronenberg, referring to his last two films, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. But he says making a film about these erudite, articulate people was a different kind of challenge – a movie where every form of behaviour is out in the open and scrutinized.

Cronenberg says he'd never call himself a Freudian – "I don't think in those schematic terms" – but says he's been influenced by Freud, admires him and "unlike a lot of people who express opinions about Freud, have actually read him."

It's Freud's mental clarity and elegance as a literary stylist that Cronenberg admires, and A Dangerous Method is in that same spirit. There was enough material here for a miniseries or a 10-part movie, he says, but it has been rigorously filtered and distilled by screenwriter Christopher Hampton ( Dangerous Liaisons, Atonement).

Of course, this couldn't be a Cronenberg film without some hair-raising threat of violence. That threat is portrayed early, as we see Knightley's character brought by a carriage pulled by galloping black horses to the entrance of Burgholzli, the psychiatric complex of the University of Zurich in Switzerland. An 18-year-old on a family trip to Switzerland, Spielrein was admitted to the clinic with "hysterical psychosis," a now-archaic diagnosis.

To date, Knightley has been known as something of an English rose with roles in such films as Atonement and Pride and Prejudice. But A Dangerous Method should shake all that up. From the film's beginning, she thrashes about like a captured wild animal, jaw thrust forward, as she struggles to wrench out words. It's a daring performance, though one that has drawn both praise and doubts from early reviews.

Cronenberg acknowledges that, to some degree, the depiction of hysteria was "a built-in problem" but is absolute in his defence of Knightley's performance.

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"The idea that her performance was bad at the beginning and then became good – well, no."

He describes Knightley as an actress of "great range" who was capable of the particular physical effect of thrusting her jaw forward violently – an outward manifestation of someone struggling to be heard and "an inexpensive special effect."

In fact, Cronenberg says this depiction of Spielrein's behaviour is restrained. "I've seen film clips of women who were diagnosed with hysteria," he says. "They're unwatchable."

His argument is backed up by notes of Spielrein's admission to the clinic: "Patient laughs and cries in a strangely mixed, compulsive manner. Masses of tics; she rotates her head jerkily, sticks out her tongue, twitches her legs."

Those observations were made by the young doctor Carl Jung, who treated the patient, and, apparently, subsequently became her lover, despite having a pregnant wife at home.

During the period he was seeing Spielrein, Jung met Sigmund Freud, whom he had long admired. The two men bonded intensely. Six years later, though, they were no longer talking – a paradoxical development in the early history of the psychological method know as "the talking cure."

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For her part, Spielrein subsequently sought out Freud, and may have provided him with some of his most important insightsabout the relationship between sex and death.

For Cronenberg, all three are part of a story not just about pioneers in psychiatry, but about love – which started with Freud's recognition that the relationship between the psychiatrist and the patient is an intimate one.

"There is sex involved between Jung and Sabina but not between Sabina and Freud. But there is love amongst all of them. In fact, there is love between Jung and Freud. It is a love story among three people – an unusual one because they are so incredibly articulate and verbal and observant and obsessive about the details of their lives and emotions."

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Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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