New York Film Festival 2011 Entry #3 - Quickie Review Of David Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method"

by Tambay A. Obenson
October 6, 2011 2:27 AM
6 Comments
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Alright... moving right along. As I promised, here are my brief thoughts on David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method; might do a fuller review closer to its general release date (November 23rd) after I've seen it again, and had more time to ponder it.

I really wanted to like this more - much more than I actually did. David Cronenberg directing Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortensen, and Vincent Cassell? I’m there almost every damn time, regardless of the subject matter. These are actors, and a director I have immense respect for, given their past work.

But it didn't take long into the film for my buzz-kill to happen, when one of the its central characters (Sabina Spielrein) played by Keira Knightley, was introduced. I think she's miscast here. To be honest, I haven’t seen much of the young actress’ work, so I’m not informed enough to offer critique of her acting abilities; but she was more of a distraction, especially in the early scenes depicting her character's hysteria, in which Knightley overly writhes and cowers, playing opposite a rather stiff Fassbender.

And the fact that she’s in just about every 3rd scene hindered my ability to finally and fully settle into the experience of watching and appreciating the work; although, to her credit, the material is challenging, and she does fare well enough in some later sequences.

The story is based on real life events – the early days of psychoanalysis, and the falling-out of Sigmund Freud (Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Fassbender) over a hysterical patient who would later become Sabina Spielrein, one of the first female psychoanalysts. It’s a combined character study as well as a history lesson, covering the 9 or so year period, from 1904 to 1913, that these characters were introduced to one another, *intermingled*, and eventually grew apart, both physically as well as in ideological thought.

And if you’re not already somewhat familiar with the material, a second viewing might be necessary to fully grasp the ideas that are introduced and dissected here.

It’s what I’d call an intelligent film; smart and dialogue-heavy, with no real moments to chew and digest it all. So you’re forced to listen intently, so as to ensure that you’re following all the critical threads! If anything, that alone should help keep you engaged. But it might also be frustrating to the impatient. Although this is also what I'd call an adult film - not necessarily in terms of its depictions of sexuality (although there are a few *risque* scenes), but rather the fact that it requires a mature mind to appreciate.

I did expect it to be far more darker and even dare I say, dangerous, to borrow from the film’s title. It's quite cold and even sterile. I would have preferred something that really delved into the grit and grime of it all. After all we're talking psychoanalysis. Cronenberg did mention during the Q&A that followed that his intention was to present a work that was as true to the real-life events and characters it's based on, and so maybe what's on screen is indeed an accurate depiction of the real-life drama the film highlights. But, while it’s certainly “well-dressed,” as one of my colleagues put it in a conversation that followed after the screening, with mostly wonderfully subtle performances from Fassbender and Mortensen notably, the film is maybe Cronenberg’s safest, and least provocative, despite such deliciously dangerous subject matter having to do with the entanglement of the psychological with the physical.

I was actually surprised at how often I chuckled. It’s definitely not a comedy, although there are certainly some comedic moments – mostly intentional; not the hysterical kind; subtle. However, considered from another angle altogether, especially with Knightley’s Acting (note the capital “A”), Mortensen’s nose prosthetic (aiding him in disappearing into his role as Freud), and Fassbender’s deadpan earnestness, one could watch this film and see a farce instead.

It’s at times too stodgy – overly formal and pompous; Fassbender and Mortensen certainly seem to be having a good time portraying these men of psychoanalytics legend.

So, for me, it was a mixed bag. I didn’t love it (certainly won’t be on my Cronenberg short list), but I didn’t despise it either. I was engaged in moments, but did peek at my watch once or twice.

I just expected something quite different, and not so ordinary. The acting is its strength. With a different cast, this could have been some tedious melodrama. And Cronenberg realizes that he needs to allow the work to happen in front of the camera, with seemingly little technically to distract.

See it if it opens in your city.

That's it!

I see the much-talked about Shame tomorrow morning at 10am; Michael Fassbender stars in that as well, so a coup for him during awards season this year. I'll aim to review that film soon thereafter. Also, I owe you a review of Sleeping Sickness.

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6 Comments

  • urbanauteur | October 7, 2011 5:42 AMReply

    This is Steven Spielburg worthy here, i read in some left rag that his parents were 'timothy leary practioners during the 40's,before it was a name per se,in fact it was a big falling out with Sig freuds girl-Karen Horney,which cronenburg did'nt for whatever reason include in this film,thatz a story in of itself, along with german theorist of this period-Wilheim Reith & B.F.Skinner/Jaques Lacan coming up from the left, along with that other overlooked pedaphile-Alfred Kinsey, surely his[steven speilburg] penchant for Oedipus Rex in his child anst movies could goalong way "Minority Report-stylings with this material, if only Dreamworks dared,ha!.

  • Vanessa Martinez | October 6, 2011 11:52 AMReply

    interesting...I hope to catch it at the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival this month.

  • BondGirl | October 6, 2011 8:07 AMReply

    My friend saw the film and had the exact same analysis, sans the Knightley critique. She actually liked Shame way better, which we both saw today. I enjoyed Knightley in Atonement, but can't think of any other film where she's likeable...not a huge fan.

  • Nia | October 6, 2011 5:01 AMReply

    I have to say I'm not the biggest fan of Ms. Knightley. She is usually cast in frivolous roles like in Pirates and Domino. I couldn't see her tackling serious material, although sometimes she has done it well.
    I had hoped the film would be more engrossing. Maybe they got to caught up in specifics of the subject matter and not the performances. All of the actors are extremelly talented. I hate to hear that their performances feel flat here.

  • Capricorn | October 6, 2011 3:43 AMReply

    Dr. Carl Jung would be stripped of his license today. Another film due to come out in theaters is A Dangerous Method also starring Michael Fassbender. For those X-Men fans who thought that Professor X/Magento’s relationship was epic, the Freud/Jung bust up was very much the same. Both men are the fathers of modern psychology and had begun as professional collaborators. Jung was mentored by Freud and much of their philosophies form the foundation of most academic psychology programs. One cannot be a therapist without studying the writings of Freud and Jung. Their names were lent to a an entire discipline and are synonymous with it, such as Freudian or Jungian, plus the numerous cultural references to their ideas in common language. When you hear the words - “its a daddy or mommy issue” - you’re borrowing from Freud. Or if you are prone to want to interpret dreams or explore your unconsciousness its stepping into Jung’s territory.

    Like the X-Men’s duo, when Freud and Jung broke it created two distinct philosophies and vernacular. In Freud we have the ego, ID, hysteria, Freudian slip, free association, repression and neurosis. As for Jung, there is the shadow, complex, archetype, synchronicity, and symbolism of the collective unconscious. Brilliant and pioneering in their contributions to the understanding of the mind and soul, these two men were still humans with shortcomings. For Dr. Jung it was his affair with Sabrina that doomed his relationship with Freud. For what Jung is in the history of psychology it is ironic that his illicit affair today would cause any therapist to be stripped of their license.
    Fassbender’s portrayal will be interesting to see as Sabrina had a predilection for what we now call S&M. Even more ironic is that Sabrina went on to become a therapist herself and studied with Piaget who wrote many works on child development. It makes one wonder: are all therapists essentially wounded healers themselves? If Sabrina were to try to be a licensed psychologist today could she with her mental health history? Perhaps. A Dangerous Method could be a biopic tale of projection, transference, sex therapy, and boundary violations that are now illegal. After watching this movie I may never look at Jungian work quite the same way again.

  • Hanna | October 6, 2011 3:37 AMReply

    The New York Film Festival is abuzz with the new Cronenberg film that depicts the relationship between the fathers of modern psychology: Dr. Sigmund Freud and Dr. Carl Gustav Jung. Both men knew one another in Vienna and through Fred, Jung was introduced to Sabina Spielrein who became his patient and then his lover. Spielrein’s personal history included some sort of sexual trauma and physical abuse by her father which directly related to her penchant of S&M and other hysterical tendencies. For some reason Michael Fassbender’s performance as Connor in Fish Tank has caused me to see the father issues reflected in his other work. A Dangerous Method is just the latest Fassy film to do just that. Children belong to their fathers. A daughter carries her father’s surname until she marries and takes her husband’s name. A father gives his daughter away to her spouse. Whether you like it or not, agree with me or not, Daddy is the first man in your life and he is the template to which all men are perceived in your eyes. To borrow a phrase from an author whose name I can’t remember: Daddy is your destiny. Especially when it comes to your dealings with men. Sabina Spielrein, by the accounts explored in the movie, appeared to have a father-daughter relationship professionally with Freud and an incestuous trauma repetition one with Jung. According to some, the intimate affair between Jung and Sabina began after she stopped being his patient. Nevertheless, by today’s standards such a breech of trust even after the end of a therapeutic relationship would still bring down the long arm of the law. But in pre-WW1 Vienna, the married Swiss psychiatrist did not have a licensing body to worry about.

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