Leave it to director David Cronenberg to make a period piece for intelligent people familiar with Freud, Jung and the subconscious origins of kinky sex. It's like a Merchant-Ivory movie set in a red light district.
Without ever dumbing down complicated psychoanalytic theory, it follows how a female patient (Keira Knightley) possessed with strange symptoms and fierce intelligence affects both Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortenson, whose performance is sharp and canny) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). Jung is the first to treat Sabina, an almost rabid young woman who eventually reveals that her father's beatings sexually aroused her. Whereas prior doctors would have locked her away in an asylum, Jung is fascinated and in the first throes of his experimentation with what he calls the "talking cure." As she gets better, she begins assisting Jung, who visits Vienna to consult with Freud, who has become the world's expert on such principles as the anal and oral stage of development, sexual metaphor, and dream analysis. They debate and challenge each other into the wee hours and, when a patient of Freud's corners Jung on the stifling concept of monogamy, the darkest shades of Jung's libido play out with Sabina's cooperation and a whip.
Mortenson is as wonderful here as the clever script by Christopher Hampton, who won as Oscar for writing another smart sex drama, "Dangerous Liaisons". Some may have mixed feelings about Knightley's performance; her hysteria is, well, hysterical, and not in a funny way. It's pretty hard to watch as she juts out her bottom teeth like a caged animal, and you may be relieved when the camera cuts away from her. But in her favor, I suppose hysteria of this degree WAS hard to watch.