Odd Couples at Venice: Freud & Jung, Wallis & Edward, Cronenberg & Madonna

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Sony Pictures Classics

For a film festival that celebrates the vivid image, this year's Venice has been strangely stagebound. After George Clooney's The Ides of March and Roman Polanski's Carnage, both based on plays, comes David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, from the Christopher Hampton play The Talking Cure, depicting the rivalry of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud as they wrestled over the fundamentals of psychoanalysis. Also on display is W.E., a bio-pic about the love affair of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. This sorry effort was directed and co-written by Madonna — the Lady Gaga of the '80s — but it's got the florid language and rigid schematics of a flop play that closed in Pittsburgh.

Jung (Michael Fassbender) was a radiant acolyte of Freud (Viggo Mortensen) when he took the case of Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a brilliant young Russian Jew tortured by her father's abuse and the strange sexual pleasures it gave her; later she became one of the first prominent women psychoanalysts. Accepting historian Peter Loewenberg's argument that Jung broke the physician's covenant and became Spielrein's lover, Hampton and Cronenberg build an affair no less iconoclastic than that of King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. A gentle but strict Swiss Protestant with a quiet, loving, wealthy wife (the excellent Sarah Gadon), Jung wrestles his sexual demons — giving Sabina the rough sex she thinks she wants — while struggling to break from Freud's prime tenet, that childhood sexual repression is the root of adult neuroses. Like Sabina, Carl must figuratively kill the father figure to achieve emotional independence.

The first trauma Sabina describes to Jung — of feeling something slimy, like a mollusk, against her back as she masturbates — could be an image from any prime Cronenberg film, like Shivers or Rabid or Naked Lunch, where sexual anxieties manifest themselves as monster slugs or cockroaches. The director also has occasional fun with Freud's omnipresent cigar: as he and Jung sail into New York Harbor on their first visit to America, the cigar seems to penetrate the robes of the Statue of Liberty in a most vulnerable spot. And in Otto Gross, an Austrian psychoanalyst who represents the libido in all its father-defying cunning, Cronenberg seizes onto a figure of the most riotous, appealing anarchy. Joyfully incarnated by Vincent Cassel, who steals every scene he's in, Gross is a madman one would eagerly accompany on the road to Hell.

Mostly, though, A Dangerous Method is a pearly showcase for its urgent dialectic, elevated dialogue and world-class stars. It is rightly content to embody Jung's agonized sobriety and Freud's courtly, corrosive wit. Mortensen has never seemed so relaxed in a difficult role; he is the charming papa one hates to overthrow but knows one must. Fassbender, the imperiously romantic Rochester of Jane Eyre, tamps down his usual steely sensuality to make flesh of the conflicts a principled man feels for a troubled Circe.

Knightley has trouble with her character's early extremes and Russian accent — the viewer sees not through her into Sabina but rather the strenuous attempt of Keira Knightley to impersonate a lunatic saint. Later, as Sabina gains clarity and control, Knightley makes a lovely lover for Carl. One stately overhead shot slowly closes in on the two of them lying in furtive rapture on a sailboat (that his wife has just bought him). They might be in their wedding bed, or a dual coffin, and it wouldn't matter to this intoxicated couple. For the moment, passion is its own death and transfiguration.

Freud or Jung might have wished to put the director of W.E. on the couch for some serious counseling. A kind of transatlantic, cross-generational Julie & Julia, the movie cross-cuts between vignettes in the sad, romantic life of the real Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), the twice-divorced American for whose love Edward (James D'Arcy) renounced the British throne in 1936, and scenes set in 1990s Manhattan of the fictional Wally (Abbie Cornish), who is obsessed with her near-namesake. Breaking the confines of her own loveless, suffocating marriage, Wally attends a Sotheby's auction of Simpson memorabilia — where, contrary to all auction-house protocol, she is allowed to handle the artifacts — and falls for Evgeny, a Russian security guard (Oscar Isaac). Since Wally is Wallis's avatar, the sensitive brute Evgeny must be her prince charming. But her closest encounter is with the ghost of the imperious Wallis, who's none too pleased to be raised from the dead for a chat with a groupie. "This is not some kind of fairy tale," the Duchess huffs, slapping Wally. "Wake up!"

As a notorious American who married a famous Brit (director Guy Ritchie) and settled in London, Madonna might feel her own kinship for Simpson. And after the triumph of The King's Speech, this is just the time for a corrective on the strained relations of Edward and his brother Bertie, who became George VI when the smitten King abdicated. But the script Madonna confected with longtime colleague Alex Keshishian — he directed her 1991 tell-all doc Truth or Dare — is all heat and no light. Oddly discounting the evidence of Edward's Nazi sympathies and the rumors of the couple's bisexuality, the director concentrates on gaudy scenes of wife-beating by Wallis's first husband and bizarre endearments of the loving couple. Riseborough and D'Arcy (in roles apparently intended for Vera Farmiga and Ewan McGregor) work hard to give life to thankless roles, but their yeoman toil couldn't keep the audience from snickering when the dying Edward implores, "Dance for me, Wallis," and Chubby Checker leaps onto the soundtrack, and the 70something Simpson performs the twist. True love never looked so uncomfortable.

Madonna's residual celebrity will get W.E. (for Wallis and Edward, and the "we" of Wallis and Wally) some vagrant attention — just enough, we suspect, to cement its initial impression as a lamentable, laughable effort. The Venice Festival is young, but we'll bet that by closing night, when critics are asked what film was the saddest little piggy in the competition, they'll cry W.E., W.E., W.E., all the way home.