Cronenberg’s Talking Cure: A Dangerous Method
This, on paper, is a golden idea. Cronenberg has made a career out of Freudian imagery, so making an actual movie based on a well regarded play, based on a well regarded book, about Freud and Jung must have seemed like a perfect fit of director to material. Think Michael Bay and Transformers. Instead, I’m not sure what went wrong here, because this doesn’t feel much like a Cronenberg film, but that might be because this is “new” respectable Cronenberg, not old insane Body Horror Cronenberg. Dave, man, what happened to you?
I originally meant to see this in the cinema, but promptly forgot about it. Still, better late than never, and now with the advent of Cosmopolis, Cronenberg’s latest, I was prompted to rent A Dangerous Method from Lovefilm. To be honest, part of the reason I didn’t see it, is that I have very limited interest in psychotherapy (other than a mildly esoteric knowledge that Freud only ever had 5 patients and didn’t help any of them), and I feared that A Dangerous Method would be stagey, boring and overly talkative with nothing of substance to actually say.
As mentioned this is based loosely on real events, and particular the deteriorating relationship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). The film opens with a deeply disturbed Sabina Speilrein (an obvious hysteric and a painfully overacting Keira Knightly) being admitted into Jung’s less-than-tender care. Gradually Jung effects a talking cure on her, based wholly on Freud’s sexual theories, and she graduates to assisting him while he experiments on his wife. This is effective in her case, because her psychosis (partially based on masochism) is so obviously the result of a sexual episode in her past. Nevertheless, Freud introduces a new patient, the debauched Otto Gross (Vincent Cassell) to Jung, who begins to believe Gross’ nonsense about the purity of hedonism. Next thing you know he’s conducting a full-blown BDSM affair with Sabina, and his relationship with Freud is becoming increasingly strained.
As Jung dabbles further in what Freud dismissively labels “mysticism”, the two men begin to come at loggerheads. Jung is frustrated at Freud’s closed mind and inability to look beyond sex as the root of all mental illness, while Freud grows increasingly weary with Jung’s more unbalanced spiritual antics. Their relationship shatters finally when they meet (in what is clearly meant to be the climactic scene of the film) in Freud’s study and Jung, who believes that “nothing is coincidence” gets over excited when the furniture makes a cracking sound. And then does it again. Freud, needless to say, is unimpressed at this, and the final nail is placed in the mentor-pupil relationship at an editorial meeting arguing about an ancient Pharoah. Freud insists that Jung is symbolically trying to kill his father, and has a heart attack.
This is an astonishingly dreary film. Fassbender plays Jung as an inherently uptight filing clerk, who seems to have the passion of a dead halibut, while Knightly is painful on the screen. I’m not her biggest fan anyway, but she insists on mangling some godawful Bond villain Russian accent, and her mania turn (apparently based on the real tics and mannerisms of lunatics from the time period) is strident, aggravating and completely off-putting. The spanking scenes are almost anaemic in their lack of passion, and I don’t care how much she tries to screw her face up in an attempt to portray orgasmic bliss, it’s almost laughable.
Mortensen’s Freud, on the other hand, is far more successful. Uptight, dogmatic and full of false insights, he’s never on screen without a cigar in his mouth. Cassel is typically over the top as Gross, but by far the most sympathetic performance in the film is Sarah Gordon as Jung’s wife. It’s the only turn that could, in any stretch, be described as warm, and warmth is something the film sorely lacks.
That isn’t to say it isn’t lacking other attributes. For a start, it’s deathly boring for the most part. The problem is that the script is elaborate and overly analytical. Practically everything that comes out of Freud and Jung’s mouths is an analysis of what the other has said in facile and overly simplistic terms. It gets unbelievably boring after a while, and it isn’t helped when Knightly starts getting in on the act by offering her brilliant psychological analysis of Jung’s wife.
I don’t really have much to say about this film. Yes, it’s obviously a play on screen, and yes it’s kind of boring. However, what I think really hurts it is that the film feels so wholly dispassionate. It’s one of the coldest Cronenberg films in a long time, and the almost surgical style feels as if the director is sitting in the therapist’s chair behind the characters. Every word, in fact almost every nuance is spelled out on the screen, and it’s only a mystery that Jung doesn’t spit out “but Sigmund, you know what your cigar represents?”
Overall, this one just didn’t work for me. While it is, bar Knightly who is trying far too hard for an Oscar, well acted, the material seems unable to transcend its stage roots. What we have here is a polished, shiny, professional, but deathly boring movie, and one that doesn’t linger in the memory longer than the closing credits. A Dangerous Method is Cronenberg at his worst, it’s dispassionate, strangely tame and utterly heartless and I take no pleasure in saying that at the end of the day this is a dull and dreary movie, which even a spot of light sex and spanking can’t enliven. I give it 1 Chang out of 4, and am going to go back to forgetting about it as soon as possible.
One more Cronenberg to catch up on, the Droid-loathed Cosmopolis. I don’t like the book, and I particularly dislike that Twilight cockwomble, so I’m not holding a lot of hope for it.