A couple of handsome, slick-haired Europeans are giving moviegoers mustache rides back to the early 20th century. One doesn't speak and never goes anywhere without his faithful dog. The other talks too much but still earns the canine loyalty of a follower. Both toil in films that can't quite maintain the thrilling sparks thrown off at the start.
The silent man is George Valentin, Jean Dujardin's eyebrow-cocking title character in The Artist. The chatterbox — the reluctant-cocksman version of psychiatrist Carl Jung played by Michael Fassbender in A Dangerous Method — might be professionally curious about Valentin, but even he might cry foul at The Artist's clumsy co-opting of Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo score. Because the Jung posited by writer Christopher Hampton and director David Cronenberg (adapting Hampton's 2002 play, The Talking Cure) knows a thing or two about obsession. It's a bitch.
Fassbender's Jung is in thrall to three people. He still professes a chaste, clean, child-giving love for his wife, Emma (Sarah Gadon, a fine Alfred Hitchcock ice blonde), who's also the family money. He carries a professional torch for Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen, so constantly with cigar, you worry that he's going to contract Freud's mouth cancer right in front of you), a stern father figure. And he's in doomed heat for Sabina Spielrein, the real-life patient turned sadomasochistic lover turned colleague played here by Keira Knightley with furious jaw and furiouser Russian accent.
It takes a little while for Mind to stop feeling like a Merchant-Ivory film, mainly because cinematographer Peter Suschitzky aggressively sun-dapples so much of it. If it weren't for the full-bodied howls that force Sabina's admission to Jung's asylum as the movie opens, we could be watching the run-up to a croquet tournament. Her convulsions turn out to be seismic, involuntary orgasms, but Jung doesn't get turned on until Vincent Cassel (the movie's vivid high point) turns up as Otto Gross, the ultimate id enabler. Gross instructs Jung to indulge, and indulge Jung does.
Freud doesn't approve, and the fissure that opens between teacher and pupil — and between Jung and Sabina after she is remade (Vertigo-style) as a brilliant scholar by her former analyst — powers the drama. Rejected by Jung, Sabina threatens to take up with Freud, and Jung weeps into her lap. But the movie loses some of its gravity after Fassbender's please-don't-revenge-fuck-my-friend breakdown. What started as an electric suite of duets wobbles to the finish line as a loose triangle. The father of psychoanalysis doesn't really want to spank Sabina, and everybody pretty much says the safe word and goes home with a respectable partner.
Even as their points dull, Cronenberg and Hampton leave marks that bleed after the credits roll. The talking here doesn't cure much, especially obsessive, destructive desire. And therein lies the fascination with method and movie.