David Cronenberg brought his Freud-Jung movie A Dangerous Method to Venice today, and received an enthusiastic reception from a packed press screening. Stars Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender and Keira Knightley joined him on the press conference, along with his long-time collaborator, producer Jeremy Thomas and co-stars Vincent Cassel and Sarah Gadon.
Cronenberg, a popular figure in Venice, was in jovial mood – heartened by the ovation for a difficult film. He pointed out this was the 68th Venice Festival and he himself is 68. (Cue applause.) The festival’s opening film was The Ides of March – and his birthday is March 15. How about that? As the auteur of a new film with a major character (Carl Jung) who doesn’t believe in coincidence, this was pretty goofy.
Anyway, on to the movie itself:
Talky, cerebral and intensely complex in its depiction of a fraught three-cornered relationship, A Dangerous Method is quite unlike any other film by Cronenberg, still widely associated with blood, gore and body parts. Set between 1904 and 1913, it tackles the struggle between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) to establish their supremacy at the dawn of the era of psychoanalysis.
The future and well being of Sabina Spielrein, a troubled young Russian woman played by Keira Knightley, becomes the defining issue between the two men. Aged 18, she arrives at a Zurich hospital to be treated by Jung. She's in a distressing state, flinching from human contact and contorting her body and face in grotesque gestures of pain and terror.
Cronenberg has coaxed a performance from Knightley so ferocious in these early scenes that it seems likely to become the film's main talking point. It's also a risky strategy, as Sabina's behaviour is extreme to the point of being alienating.
Yet it also underlines the intensity of the stakes of the rivalry between Freud and Jung, which comes to resemble a father-son struggle. Jung experiments on Sabina with his innovative “talking cure,” the earliest form of psychoanalysis, encouraging her to recall her feelings as a child when her father beat her.
Jung, married to a rich, sedate woman (Sarah Gadon) who bears him children, finally admits his repressed lust for Sabina, and they embark on an affair. (She enjoys being hit.) The liaison appalls Freud. The scene in which Jung takes her virginity is one of the few classic Cronenberg moments.
Much of this material (adapted from Christopher Hampton's play. The Talking Cure) is frankly uncinematic, and Cronenberg has compensated with sumptuous locations – Swiss lakes, opulent houses and ravishing costumes – Knightley is decked out in an impressive series of blouses, bustles and corsets.
The main performances are fine, with Fassbender conveying seething emotion beneath a calm veneer. But it’s Knightley one remembers, for a full-on portrayal that is gutsy and potentially divisive in equal parts.