Michael Fassbender fans, you’re in for a treat: The handsome Irish actor whips Keira Knightley’s bare butt in A Dangerous Method and shows his pickle in Shame. The pickle shot is extraneous, as is the bush shot of Carey Mulligan in the shower, but the NC-17 rating will let Shame director Steve McQueen (not the dead star) proclaim, “The actors are naked, I tell you. Emotionally and physically.” He opens with the Irish-born, New Jersey–raised Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender) lying naked on his bed, staring forlornly into space after another meaningless sexual encounter. The man is already marinating in his shame, so there’s nowhere to go but down. The title says it all.
Brandon is not a predator — he’s magnetic enough that his pickups are soft sells. But he prefers prostitutes and online sex-chats and porn: Nothing with emotional commitment. His one tie is to his sister, Sissy (Mulligan), a nightclub singer who moves in with him and whom we watch slowly torture the song “New York, New York” to death. (Her funereal performance is meant to be bitterly ironic.) Sissy also sleeps around a lot, but, unlike her brother, gets too emotionally committed too fast. Each sibling embarrasses the other, but they’re stuck together in Brandon’s big, faceless, far West Side apartment with its views of New Jersey.
McQueen films his characters like specimens in a jar, but the stakes are so high that the actors deliver. There are some excellent scenes, the best one wordless. Brandon stares at a woman on the subway, mentally undressing her, and she, after much squirmy hesitation, seems to mentally undress him back. (I bet the actress, Lucy Walters, will get a lot of offers — er, parts — after this.) The other good scene comes early, when Brandon overhears his sister plead on the phone with a lover not to leave her. Mulligan hits some startling notes: Sissy’s fear of abandonment is primal.
The rest of Shame is so obvious that it makes a great gigglefest, but a lot of people watch in awe, cued by Harry Escott’s plaintive drone of a score, which sounds too much like Max Richter. When Brandon flees a potential girlfriend (Nicole Beharie) because the sex would be too, you know, intimate, he sinks to a new low. He goes to a gay bar and lets an anonymous patron suck him off. The horror, the horror. Then he has an orgy (with women) in which he looks like Christ on the cross and opens his mouth in a silent scream of anguish. Since McQueen has told us so little about Brandon’s or his sister’s past, we have no insight into how the siblings turned out the way they did. It’s empty sex for us, too.
On first viewing, I found David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method a wordy bore, but I saw it again after Shame and did … not a 180, but at least a 160-degree turn. That wordiness coupled with Cronenberg’s classical restraint is part of the splendid Freudian joke at the movie’s center. Based on a play by Christopher Hampton (with the better title The Talking Cure), the film focuses on three eggheads earnestly trying to create a theoretical framework for their sexual impulses. This will be the basis for the strange new field of psychotherapy.
With a little mustache and specs, Fassbender plays Carl Jung to Viggo Mortensen’s Sigmund Freud. But the pivotal character is Jung’s patient Sabina Spielrein, a disturbed Russian Jewish woman first seen shrieking her head off in a carriage bound for Jung’s Zurich hospital. Sabina is played by Keira Knightley in a style that would seem over-the-top from across the Roman Coliseum, let alone in close-up spitting out her Slavic consonants and overworking her long jaw. But I came to admire Knightley’s guts. She physicalizes every thought, every emotion, which makes for a nice contrast with all the other characters, who are hopelessly repressed.
Mortensen plays Freud — very wittily — as the most buttoned-up: He studies people, puffing on a cigar that’s not just a cigar since he looks as if he’s thinking dirty thoughts. Which he is. That’s one source of the rift between him and Jung, who’s open to mysticism and the supernatural, who doesn’t want sex to be the only explanation for how people behave. But sex is the only reason for much of what happens in A Dangerous Method. Goaded on by Otto Gross (a delightfully lewd Vincent Cassell), an aptly named patient and therapist sent to Zurich by Freud (the saboteur!), Jung has an S&M affair with Sabina — who then becomes a therapist herself and tries to convince Freud that the sex drive is demonic and self-annihilating. Freud studies her, puffing on his cigar. He knows when to shut up.
A Dangerous Method doesn’t climax so much as peter out, its characters separated by philosophy and religion and social status. In Zurich, Jung is supported by his rich wife, while Freud, the Viennese Jew, remains middle class —a nd a pariah. Sabina, both Jewish and female, has the biggest obstacles but holds her own and then some. Oh, for the days when people could announce they were going off to be psychoanalyzed, before Freudianism became synonymous with “reductive.” Sure, Freud and Jung have a wide streak of hypocrisy, but compared to the blind acting-out and trendy despair of Shame, A Dangerous Method is a road map to happiness, chock-full of tips on how to reconcile our disparate impulses. The whole movie is a talking cure.