A Dangerous Method (Gala Presentation)
A Film By David Cronenberg
Cinema and psychoanalysis have a long history together, as the new technology and the striking new school of thought both began and evolved during the turn of the 20th century. And since the 1970s, psychoanalysis has been used in film theory to explore films in new light, where characters once thought to be crazy are instead explored within their Freudian terms of wanting to return the womb or whatnot (Classic Hollywood seems ripe with metaphors for sex looking back).
So what psychoanalysis can we read on the makers of psychoanalysis? That certainly sounds like an interesting question for David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, a stately and occasionally involving piece on the history of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, as well as the woman that changed everything. On first appearances, Mr. Cronenberg, known for his more graphically violent films from Videodrome, to Crash, to A History of Violence, might seem like the wrong choice for this stately work from screenwriter Christopher Hampton (adapting his own play The Talking Cure, that adapted from the book A Most Dangerous Method by John Kerr). But thematically, this is a work through and through by Mr. Cronenberg, exploring how an idea can transform, disfigure, and infect the body.
The film is though, very much a talking piece, where the script lingers more than Mr. Cronenberg’s orderly and subtle approach to the work (those looking for directorial touches will certainly notice the way the director carefully constructs his two person dialogue scenes). The performances though, are certainly at the crux of the film, most notably Kiera Knightly’s intensely hysterical performance as Sabina Spielrein, a Russian Jewish patient at Carl Jung’s hospital with a manic and uncontrollable body and a horde of secrets waiting to be uncovered. Jung, played by the controlled Michael Fassbender, decides to take Sabina as his first patient to use the “talking cure” he’s heard so much about from Sigmund Freud (a hammy Viggo Mortenson).
As Ms. Knightly withers her body in ways that seem inhumanly possible, most notably her unhinged jaw, Mr. Cronenberg keeps the camera extremely restrained and in line with Jung’s calm and collected investigation into Sabina’s past. As he begins to make progress though, he can’t help but involve himself in her personal life, as Sabina becomes better and learns to become a psychoanalyst herself. Jung also engages with Freud (always smoking on a large phallic cigar) through a series of conversations and letters where they discuss their method of psychoanalysis, Jung hoping to explore the more supernatural side of the ego, with Freud hoping to stay strictly in the sexual.
Despite the gorgeous work by Mr. Cronenberg, who keeps the frames in neatly order, even during the film’s not exactly graphic S&M sequences, A Dangerous Method lacks any sense of narrative momentum or even intrigue. The limitations arrive from Mr. Hampton’s script, which is highly accurate (using much of the actual lines from the journals and letters of the three leads), but lacks any sense of actual intrigue. The conversations between Jung and Freud are fun for fans of psychoanalysis are meant to give a sense of a shifting rivalry in their methods, but Mr. Fassbender and Mr. Mortenson are a little too restrained in their conversations that seem to give the film a little bit of a dry feeling. Similarly, the romance between Jung and Sabina feels equally restrained of feeling. And a brief appearance by Vincent Cassell as a ferocious and impulsive psychoanalyst only too easily fills out the film’s major themes.
The problem, which may be blasphemous by some, slightly lays in the characterization of Jung, as well as Mr. Fassbender’s cold and calculated performance. Jung is seen as a man who is both aware of his impulses but knows how to control them, but even when he does give in, still seems cold. There’s no thrill of neither the work nor the romance in Mr. Fassbender, who has been such a thrill of an actor to watch in Hunger, Fish Tank, and even X-Men: First Class. Under the direction of Mr. Cronenberg, Mr. Fassbender lets control win over something more organic.
Of course, restraint is the point, and Mr. Cronenberg’s worlds have often dealt with the chaos of new technologies destroying the control of the body. In a way, A Dangerous Method is most closely related to Mr. Cronenberg’s Videodrome with the idea of discussing repression replacing the consumption of media, as both take over and urge the body in unexpected ways. In A Dangerous Method, however, restraint wins in the end, and while the film is a fascinating examination of the early history of psychoanalysis, it’s a limited one that keeps its audience restrained as well, afraid of the impulses it might unleash if our true repression is revealed.