Review: Cronenberg's 'A Dangerous Method' An Insightful Look At Sexuality & The Mind

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by Oliver Lyttelton
November 23, 2011 10:01 AM
5 Comments
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The recent career of David Cronenberg has been an interesting thing to watch. Having made his name with a very particular, icky brand of fetish-happy body horror, he hasn't dipped back into that well for a decade now, preferring instead to take his obsessions and use them to spice up what in other hands could be standard fare. And generally speaking, it has worked well: "Spider," "A History of Violence" and "Eastern Promises" all have much to recommend them, all peculiarly Cronenbergian, but each pushing in a slightly different direction. But now he's made what, on the surface at least, might seem to be his biggest departure to date: a period piece, based on a stage play (one of several in Venice this year--have movies rediscovered theater as a source of material?), that examines the relationship between the two major forefathers of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

Of course, the elements that might seem to mark this as a real departure for the Canadian helmer are purely cosmetic, but we'll come to that in a moment. First, the set-up: Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a young, mentally ill woman is brought to the hospital in Zurich where Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) works. She's clearly in a bad way, reduced to paralyzing fits of spasms and anxiety after years of beatings from her father. Jung uses the so-called "talking cure" (also the name of the Christopher Hampton play the film is based on, which starred Ralph Fiennes in London) pioneered, but seemingly never used, by Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), which uncovers a sexual heart to Sabina's problems. The method leads to a great deal of improvement and Sabina begins training as a psychoanalyst herself, and brings Jung to the attention of Freud, who becomes a kind of father figure. But the arrival of a renegade protege of Freud, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), and the continuing attentions of Spielrein, cause Jung to cross a line that can't be uncrossed.

Few filmmakers deal with sexuality -- proper, grown-up sexuality, not "can you have sex without falling in love?" -- like Cronenberg does, so in many ways a film like this is a natural fit, particularly considering an interest in psychoanalysis already shown in "Spider." As such, some might be surprised at how restrained the film is, bar a couple of spanking scenes and a sticky close-up of virginal blood. Instead, it's a film of ideas, one dominated by verbal exchanges, as you might expect considering its theatrical origins -- Cronenberg opens it up more successfully than Roman Polanski did with "Carnage," but it's certainly less cinematic than "The Ides of March" (which was also based, albeit very loosely, on a play). But where "A Dangerous Method" does feel like a film authored by Cronenberg is in the control and the discipline with which it's put together. One scene where Jung conducts research on his wife Emma (Sarah Gadon) displays some of the best cutting of the year. It's a key scene.

If you were to see only the first 20 minutes, however, you would beg to disagree. It's an unwieldy opening, dominated by what initially threatens to be a disastrous performance from Knightley. In fairness, it's a near-impossible part to pull off; when we first meet her (and she's the very first thing we see), she's a whirling ball of crazy, more a walking, spasming personified tic than a human being, and Knightley, seemingly unhinging her lower jaw like a Predator, is all mannerism at first. The effort is visible, and it's clear that she's acting rather than inhabiting the character, even if she's admirably free of vanity while she does it. Fassbender, in turn, seems to find it difficult to play off her, essentially playing a stern note and not much else.

Fortunately, things improve a great deal once Freud arrives. Mortensen (aided by probably the most significant nose prosthesis since Nicole Kidman's in "The Hours") is, as he so often is these days, tremendous, bringing a patrician wit and real pathos to the part. His arrival comes with the return of sanity to Sabina, and it helps the film no end. Once Knightley settles into the part, she's as affecting as she has been in most of her recent turns, her late-in-the-game pride at what she's achieved being particularly moving. Cronenberg is underrated as a director of women, and the film is as much a celebration of a bright, talented woman as it is about the men's battles over the early days of their new science.

As things continue, Fassbender is sometimes impenetrably stiff (as he probably should be), but he too gets a few moments in which to stretch his wings a little in the third act. The film retains the small, focused cast of the stage version, but the supporting players are strong; Cassel walks off with his scenes as the unrestrained id to Jung's ego and Freud's superego, while Cronenberg's new favorite, Sarah Gadon (who'll return in next year's "Cosmopolis"), doesn't have a great deal to do, but has a few nice moments of steeliness to flesh out the character.

All in all, it's a pacy, absorbing picture, and one of real substance (certainly more so than the enjoyable, but somewhat hollow "Eastern Promises"). But if anything keeps it from quite hitting the heights that it could, it's Hampton's scripting. It's not so much the uncompromising manner of the material -- an audience member could probably get by on the briefest knowledge of psychoanalysis, which, in this day and age, most people have. Also, while the dialogue is sometimes tortuously wordy, the cast are able to make it fly, with only one or two lines sounding clunky. The problem is more that Hampton can't quite stick the landing; Freud and Jung's feud over the latter moving into more radical, mystical territory isn't really adequately covered, while a break and then a resumption of the affair between Jung and Sabina kills the momentum of the story.

Still, if the take-off and landing are a bit bumpy, most of "A Dangerous Method" is fearsomely smart; a grown-up film that doesn't forget to move you even as it fires up the synapses. Mortensen caps off a trilogy of perfect performances for Cronenberg (and is the film's best bet for award nods, we imagine), the other leads hold their own, at least after that awkward first reel, and it examines the creative and destructive elements of sexuality in a way that very few filmmakers would dare. While we hope that Cronenberg will kick off and move a little more loosely the next time out, we're glad he decided Hampton's play was worth the effort. [B]

This is a reprint of our review from the Venice Film Festival.

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5 Comments

  • rodney compton | January 5, 2012 7:26 AMReply

    Jung and Freud Love Triangle – The Dangerous Method

    On this highly controversial play and film about the emerging talents of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud in their pursuit of unconscious meaning and therapy through the psychoanalytic processes.


    Jung was a highly complex man and any attempt to simplify his experience will inevitably deliver the interpolating agency into the hands of the opposites. We will see this film and observe the persona of a young and ambitious physician in the process of becoming world famous, but it is only half the story. There are two Jungs and it is inevitable that any contemporary exposition about the younger Jung, for the sake of completeness, will have to glimpse into the future of this unusual man's life and portray the older Jung, the evolution of which, really did not blossom until he had withdrawn his Old Wise Man archetypal projection from Freud.

    To begin to understand this second Jung, we must first look at The Red Book. It is Jung's mystery and his myth, (at least up until his embolism in 1944, when, according to his account, his soul entered the repository anew). This book is a mystical confession of the unconscious that is so obscure in its mythological origins that Jung suppressed its publication completely, for fear it would undermine his credibility as a physician and scientist. Jung's unprecedented confrontation with the unconscious, as is detailed by the Red Book, cast a completely different picture of the man from his public persona, as it details his work with the raw psychical objects, not only of his own personal Shadow Complex, but also with The Objective Shadow Complex.

    Later contemporaries talked about Jung's charisma. Jung would have used the term: manna personality. This manna is the numinous effect of Jung's plunge into the depths of the unconscious and it would be wise for us to bear this in mind when we observe the portrayal of Jung in the film. Any relations that Jung undertook prior to his integration of the psychical objects of the Red Book would inevitably have been laden with these latent contents. Only those that have trod this path would know of the intensity these unconscious objects would cast upon personal relations. Jung’s susceptibility therefore to particular relations with female patients could be explained in terms of a highly dynamic Anima transference. No less is his relation with Freud, where Jung's Old Wise Man archetypal complex would have also have been involved in the highly intense transference that inevitably arose between these two giants. That a woman patient formed an apex to a triangular relation between these men should be no surprise to anyone who has practised psychotherapy, or has insight into the ways of the soul. We should also not overlook the stature of the woman involved and some of the remarkable things she achieved. To write these relations off as sexual dalliance is prurient nonsense, these people were working at the boundaries of the unconscious, where morality is found side by side with its opposite. Jung, even then in his life, was not about exclusion, modern correctness or repression. He made mistakes and he paid the price for it, but ultimately he was an exponent of the integrated soul and under those circumstances, as he was soon to become aware, anything could happen.

    We should therefore bear in mind that it was not only Jung's undoubted therapeutic skill that effected so many of his cures, it was also his numinous capacity as a healer. This is an unknown land for those caught within the thought and language of modern therapeutic medicine, but for those involved in the dangerous method, (as the playwright chooses to call it); it is the only way forward. Analysis involves absolute commitment from the analyst to the patient – it ties the participants together as no other bond can, transcending family and friendship in the most honest exchange that man can achieve, except with the daemon of his own mythology. Jung described the process as a transference that should be as challenging to the analyst as to the patient. There are no safety nets in real life, and it is an illusion for people to think otherwise. Despite all the propaganda, peddled by the state and the media to the contrary, the world remains an unpredictable and dangerous place. This condition of mankind, the will of God apart, is precipitated by the state of man’s own unconsciousness. Jung set out to remedy this for those individuals that were directed into his path with the greatest of sincerity and integrity possible. It is almost impossible for contemporary people to understand the implication of Jung’s life and work, for he not only knew the secrets of the soul, he also came to know the secrets of the Gods. Jung stands out head and shoulders in this department of reality and alone was able to relativise God into a function of the same reality we all share. He saw the godhead in a dimension of reality like unto to the wind, the rain and the stars under which we all dwell. Jung described God as psychical phenomenology, a phrase that will ring out for generations yet to come, if not for this.
    And so, with this timely film, we must rely on the power of the unconscious to guide the intuition of Cronenberg and his actors to deliver a viable record, perhaps despite themselves. It will be wrapped up in a modern perspective, it is after all an exposition of man’s unfolding myth, but the one thing that is certain, and Jung knew this more than anyone, is that the Mercurius Duplex archetype will have its way with any artist or film-maker treading upon this ground, just as it does with all human lives.

    Jung's mythological personality foresaw our current disasters, just as it anticipated the sea of blood that engulfed Europe during the 1914-18 World War and if we look to the turmoil that has surrounded human experience on our planet since 9/11, where war, famine and disaster strike almost every month, it is clear that Jung's latter-day invocation in his book Answer To Job, about the eleventh sign: ‘Aquarius sets aflame Lucifer's harsh forces’, should not be disregarded as a program for human life, now and into the future - or at least while mankind is in transition to a more conscious and spiritual state. Something, Jung wished and eternally strove for all his life.

    R.C 5.12.2012

  • brittni | November 26, 2011 2:20 AMReply

    Mortensen and MICHAEL!!!!! YEAHHHH!!!!!!!!!!

  • ugh | November 23, 2011 12:06 PMReply

    "and it's clear that she's acting rather than inhabiting the character"
    I'm just going to direct you to this post: http://www.awardsdaily.com/2011/11/a-dangerous-method-opens-in-new-york-to-strong-support/#comment-376462

    "Fassbender, in turn, seems to find it difficult to play off her, essentially playing a stern note and not much else."
    Yes, it's Knightley's fault he's useless in this. My god can the Playlist please get off his dick. Your precious Fassbender is capable of being mediocre all on his own.

  • heyhey | November 23, 2011 12:30 PM

    Well the New York Times raves about this film and Manola Dargis calls Fassbender's performance here the best, even more so than in Shame. If he bothers you skip articles on him. You sound like a too invested fanboy/girl who can't stand a certain actor so goes around and bitches about others liking him.

  • doro | November 23, 2011 11:17 AMReply

    i'ts different from his previous movies.but sometimes you have to do other things.cronenberg is stiil one of my favorites.

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