2011, A Dangerous Method, Christopher Hampton, David cronenberg, deviancy, ego, id, Kiera Knightly, Michael Fassbender, psyche, psychoanalysis, repression, Sarah Gadon, sexuaity, Spider, stylish, super-ego, The Talking cure, unconscious, Viggo Mortensen, Vincent Cassel
Written by: Christopher Hampton, based on his play The Talking Cure
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kiera Knightly, Viggo Mortensen, Vincent Cassel, Sarah Gadon
David Cronenberg’s career has always featured a certain Freudian sesibility. Panic, paranoia, guilt and fear revolving around sex and death have long been at the centre of his films, so it’s a small wonder he has made A Dangerous Method. This film, based on The Talking Cure, a play written by Christopher Hampton (who also penned the screenplay) is about the relationship that grew and then curdled between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). Sabina Spielrein (Kiera Knightly) arrives at the hospital where Jung works, she’s brilliant and sexually confused and Jung believes she will be the perfect patient for testing out his application of Freud’s “talking cure.” He learns that not only is she a likely patient, she is also a perfect assistant and she begins to aid him in his experiments with other patients. At the same time, Jung has begun meeting with Freud and the two begin to discover that they are at odds about the work that is common between them. When Jung and Sabina begin a relationship, against Jung’s better judgement, things get particularly complicated between Jung, Freud and Sabina.
Sexuality is at the core of psychoanalysis, particularly for Freud, who believed one’s sexual development is the drive behind all behaviour. Fitting then, that this film tells a version of the real world relationship between these three people through a deviantly sexual lens. As a result of the cruel punishment administered by her overbearing father, Spielrein has developed a sexual trigger connected to humiliation and pain. Knightly, who I’ve never disliked but who I’ve always found to play her characters with emotional stiffness, plays Spielrein with freakish power. Watching her, especially early in the film, wrestle with bursts of frustration, discomfort, and sexual energy is properly disturbing. Her tiny, sharp frame jerks and spasms, her jaw tries to wrench itself from her head, she shrieks and growls and it made my skin crawl and I wanted it to end. Jung, who loves his wife (Sarah Gadon) but views her as too matronly (she spends the film dropping sprogs at an incredible rate), finds Sabina’s fierce independence and curious sexuality too attractive to resitst, and against his better judgement he begins a relationship with her. He knows he’s working against the integrity of the scientific method in doing so, but morally ambiguous advice from both his patient/colleague Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel) and Freud leads him to believe the relationship will not be too damaging. Freud’s own sexual appetites are intriguing as well; he is fixated on sex and sexuality, but it is suggested that his obsession comes from a lack rather than an abundance. In keeping with the Freudian way of thought, every interpersonal action in A Dangerous Method is sexually motivated, whether out of jealousy, attraction, or power.
Cronenberg handles the material expertly, as expected. His early career was defined by iconically evocative imagery and gore, chaotic morality and surrealism. Recently, since Spider (2002), Cronenberg’s career has shifted and his pictures, while still thematically and philosophically thethered to the rest of his career, have grown more refined… in a sense. Visually, his direction has become more subtle, more understated and he seems now to be working at leaving his imprint on more traditionally constructed films. I don’t believe Cronenberg’s films have gotten worse or boring, and in fact he’s made some of his greatest films in recent years, it’s just that there has been an undeniable change in the focus of his work. To that end, A Dangerous Method is sort of a perfect amalgamation of early- and recent- career Cronenberg, where he is able to speak directly to his previous psychosexual notions but rather than express them through vicious phallic growths and gaping wounds, he is doing so by internalizing sexually complicated emotions in his characters and watching them behave with, essentially, the same manic horror that is seen in his earlier work though it is necessarily subdued by societal constructs. Get it? Cronenberg is making Freud’s mental aparatus the structure around which he builds his film. This is the case in the behaviour and reactions of the characters, but he makes it even more explicit in his characterization of the three prominent doctors in the film where Otto Gross represents the Id, Jung is the Ego and Freud is the Super-ego. This is a brilliant and strikingly naturalistic way to compose the relationship of these three doctors, though Cassel’s Otto Gross perhaps pushes the conceit a little too far and the character’s slobbering, obsessive deviency reveals Cronenberg’s hand a bit too much. A various points throughout, Cronenberg uses a dePalmaesque effect of shooting a close-up of a person in the foreground, while placing another in the background and pulling deep focus to make both foreground and background a focal point, which evokes certain psychoanalytic notions of the interplay between the conscious and the unconscious mind.
A Dangerous Method is one of those films that proves that a “true story” is a meaningless thing for a film to boast. Jung, Freud and Spielrein were real and their relationship was complicated, but Cronenberg proves that by using them symbolically their story can be so much more useful. This film is gorgeously shot and smartly performed; Michael Fassbender plays Jung as plucky and too serious, and Viggo Mortensen smartly plays Freud with a kernel of sarcasm and a kernel of sadness. Cronenberg covers enormous ground in thsi film from beginning to end, but the material never feels unclear. There’s an amazing emotional energy that evolves in the most fascinating way, relationships build and crash with the slightest word or gesture, and beneath the surface that each character tries to maintain, there is a torrent of insecurity and self doubt.