Though Canadian director David Cronenberg is known by most cinephiles as the brilliant mind who inaugurated the micro-genre of “body horror,” it seems that in his last three films — A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and the latest, A Dangerous Method, all starring Viggo Mortensen — the man has sacked his gleefully sick cinematic fetishes in favor of more restrained, formally rigid narrative films. Though certainly not a director-worst, A Dangerous Method is the least satisfying of the three.
Since we are talking about psychologists Sigmund Freud (Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) here, Cronenberg certainly hasn’t done away with his filmed interest in psychosexuality entirely. Weird sex is an innate aspect of the source material. A Dangerous Method is as much about the economy of ideas as it is about bodies, though in less grotesque, Cronenbergian manifestations (Brundlefly this is not). This is Cronenberg’s talkiest picture, and it’s often difficult not to grow bored with its stuffy intellectual discussions of sexual drives and repressions that drive most of this film, set at the turn of the 20th century. The narrative is typically holed up in Freud’s office in Vienna, or Jung’s lavish estate in Zurich afforded by the dowry of his undoubtedly repressed wife Emma (Sarah Gadon). We get a glimpse of how these two influential intellectuals met and formed a professional relationship, as well as a friendship, but it is a glimpse and only that.
Between the men is Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a seriously fucked-up patient who becomes Jung’s psychoanalytic guinea pig in Zurich, as well as his sexual whipping post (literally).
Wide-eyed and clenchy-jawed, Sabina spents a lot of time quivering and talking about the weird stuff that “excites” her. There is a lot of talk of “excitement” in this movie, and also of Sabina’s prurient proclivities. Her primary interests, she tells one doctor, are “suicide and intergalactic travel.”
In his psychoanalytic sessions, Jung teases out the incestuous source of Sabina’s sexual problem, thanks to her willingness to reveal uncomfortable details, as in one scene where she recalls masturbating, and feeling a mollusk on her back. From here, Carl and Sabina’s relationship moves from the couch to the bedroom, where, in Freudian tradition, Sabina asks him to “punish” her, and he happily submits with a couple of hearty spankings.
Why Cronenberg makes the sexual affair between Carl and Sabina the focus of his film mystifies me, because so much more is at stake elsewhere. Halfway through, the film becomes a clandestine romance, where the two protagonists are forced to hide their love (kinky sex) not only from Jung’s wife, but also from Freud, who knows something is afoot.
This all sounds like creepy good fun in theory, but it proves pretty flavorless in practice. French fox Vincent Cassel (Black Swan, Irreversible) makes an all-too-brief appearance as a coke-addled patient who urges Jung to “lose” himself — well, that’s not exactly what he says but that’s what his character tells Nina to do in Black Swan, same idea — and to pursue his jouissance to the fullest.
Mortensen, a pillar of cinematic machismo, and Fassbender, an actor who really has bared all this year, gel well as the dynamic duo of the unconscious. They share a chemistry that is sorely lacking between Fassbender and Knightley, an actress who goes above-and-beyond to portray hysteria but lands herself somewhere in the realm of caricature.
Her performance is tits-to-the-wind crazy, but you have to give the girl credit for going where many actors probably fear to go in embodying madness. Knightley pulls no punches in scenes where she is pitted against Fassbender’s Jung, jutting her jaw with animalistic ferocity and admirably attempting a Russian-Jewish accent. Though Knightley, as always, remains confined to a corset, this is her most subversive performance to date. It seems she really can do more than play a prim and proper high-society girl named Elizabeth (i.e. nearly any film she has starred in). She’s really kind of interesting as the film’s deranged shrike.
As a Cronenberg fanatic, I have no guilt about bad punning when I say this is A Dangerous Meh-thod. We live in a post-Freud world, where psychoanalysis has been exhausted, so why dig up the sexually fraught past when the postmodern present, which Cronenberg is so good at probing, is even stranger? Then again, who could blame him for exploring the work of two historical figures whose ideas have informed his entire body of work? If only it were more … exciting.
Overall, this Cronenberg feels chillier than usual. And that’s really saying something, because the much-adored auteur’s entire filmography is replete with decidedly cold (yet much better) films like Videodrome (1983), Dead Ringers (1988), Crash (1996) and Spider (2002). Next to this canon, A Dangerous Method feels lifeless.
The film was adapted by playwright/screenwriter Christopher Hamptom from his own play The Talking Cure, based on John Kerr’s nonfiction book A Most Dangerous Method. It seems from the get-go that this film was doomed, having undergone the rigmarole of adaptation-begetting-adaptation. Hamptom has written such films as Atonement and Dangerous Liaisons, to moderate to great success, respectively. Cronenberg at least takes the script out for a walk, setting his film across different locales and time periods that would otherwise defy a stage production.
When compared to this year’s other high-profile, Oscar-buzzy stage adaptation, Roman Polanski’s forthcoming Carnage — which never overcomes its staginess — A Dangerous Method feels breezier and less banal. But is it worth seeing? Meh. All due respect, Mr. Cronenberg.