Dir:- David Cronenberg
Starr:- Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Vincent Cassel
As academic disputes go you could do much worse than the doctrinal spat between the twin behemoths of psychoanalysis (the naming of which is depicted here as a delightful piece of early powerplay by Freud) as the subject for cinematic drama. Unlike many dry and bookish tales of intellectual ego, Freud and Jung’s squabble had a whole litany of intriguing tensions and conflicts (primarily sexual and quasi-Oedipal), which are only emphasised by the primacy of their practices on the psychological health and well-being of many at the start of the 21st century.
Canadian body-horror specialist David Cronenberg has, for the last decade, been moving progressively toward a more mainstream cinema aesthetic, that has refined some of his earlier interests in physical malformation, deformity and sexual threat, into an overarching interest in violence as both a mental and physical act. Personally, I was not overly impressed with either the gangland gothic of Eastern Promises, or the disinterred and soulless western at the heart of his critically lauded The History of Violence. Comparing these modern works to such decadent and overblown fare as Scanners, Videodrome, Dead Ringers, or Crash, makes it appear as if Cronenberg has lost a little of his scalpel-sharp edge. A Dangerous Method continues this trend toward stately cinematic conventionality, but, that said, it is a highly accomplished drama with some impeccable central performances.
The narrative of the film covers the early part of the 20th century, from Jung’s first encounter with a patient called Sabina Spielrein, through the growth of his relationship with mentor Sigmund Freud, to the inevitable deterioration of both these relationships. The acclaimed playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons, Total Eclipse, Atonement) does a decent job of adapting his own play The Talking Cure (itself an adaptation of the non-fiction work A Most Dangerous Method by John Kerr). Despite the fact the movie is very much about talking, Hampton is shrewd enough to avoid overdoing the analytical sections, allowing the movie to develop rapidly, with a fairly organic focus upon the way therapeutic methods are slyly applied outside of the confines of the therapist’s office.
Cronenberg is an expert at the use of fetishistic detail and he often deploys such motifs with the aim of creating truly unsettling tension. Aside from the fantastic attention to period detail (with a glacier-clean use of CGI backdrops being a particular standout), Cronenberg is most effective in the minutiae he chooses to focus upon. Teeth are frequently placed within the centre of the shot, with special attention being paid to their unevenness, or potential decay. Much like the recently reviewed Drive there is an obsessive fixation with gloves, in Jung’s case crisply-squeaking black leather, whilst in Freud’s case they are more felt or velveteen. Freud is frequently seen wearing these soft gloves in external or formal locales and Viggo Mortensen seems to particularly revel in the slight twitches of playful tension that are magnified by the use of such an accessory. Both food and footwear are also ogled with the kind of lasciviousness that is normally the domain of Nigella Lawson or the Sex and the City women. Such seeming frippery should not be treated dismissively, as the rigourousness with which Cronenberg depicts them lends them an emblematic quality, becoming exemplifiers of neuroses and repression. The visual overload that Cronenberg employs at times in the movie has a quality reminiscent of the odd little Don McKellar short-film he appeared in called Blue, in which the executive he plays derives a perverse pleasure from things coming into contact with his feet.
One particularly impressive sequence in the movie involves Jung’s word-association test on his wife, performed with the assistance of Sabina. The bizarre mechanisms that are put into operation and the almost ritualistic application of soft weights, pen marks and electrical measurements, inexplicably rack up the tension in the scene. Close-cutting between Knightley’s focused and anxious Sabina, Fassbender’s abrupt and clinical Jung and the suppressed anguish that Sarah Gadon carefully emotes, creates a deft moment of drama, that ultimately cements Sabina and Jung’s illicit affair. At another moment in the film Cronenberg subtly frames Sabina and Jung, lying side-by-side in the hull of Jung’s sailboat (a gift from his wife), as the boat barely moves upon the still waters of the lake. Viewed from above this frame-within-a-frame shot hints at the potential for union, or the dissolution of self, that Sabina and Freud later discuss.
The casting at first seems unusual, but works impressively well. Keira Knightley has never been an actress I could warm to, and even when she has turned in an astute performance, as in Atonement, it has often been in spite of the fact that she is wholly inappropriate for the role. Here she is given a role that is perfectly suited to her brittle, neurotic sexual energy. Despite an initial burst of psycho-theatrics, reawakening the clichéd physical madness of Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted, Knightley, much like each of the main cast members, quickly disappears into her role, and the startling jaw-jutting enunciation of masochistic pleasure in the opening analysis sessions is a testament to the strength of her performance, which is possibly her best to date and one which forces me to reconsider my attitude toward her. Much like Knightley, Viggo Mortensen has had to gradually change my perception of his limitations as an actor. After a fantastic turn in the Ed Harris western Appaloosa, Mortensen here delivers a wholly convincing and entirely unexpected performance of great subtlety and charm. Cinematic Sigmund Freud’s have tended toward the depressingly clichéd, but here Mortensen balances of the pragmatic logic of a great thinker, with the spry, mischievous wit of man who never seems to entirely switch his analytical apparatus off. Completing an impressive triumvirate of acting triumphs, very much against my own personal prejudices, is Vincent Cassel as Otto Gross. I frankly find Cassel’s clownish physicality and smug arrogance a massive cinematic turn-off, yet, unlike in the earlier Eastern Promises, Cronenberg somehow manages to reign in much of Cassel’s wasteful excesses and his brief cameo is a perfectly pitched interlude in the triangle that forms the crux of the drama.
In the central role of Carl Jung the German-Irish actor Michael Fassbender adds yet another impressive role to a rapidly expanding CV. Fassbender has the looks of a classic Hollywood matinée idol, reminding one a little of a steely blue-eyed Trevor Howard. Yet like the very best matinée idols (the non-Brad Pitt’s of this world) Fassbender also has the ability to give a variety of difference performances and demonstrates a particular assuredness in those moments when a lesser actor would undoubtedly reach for the OTT switch. Throughout the film, and despite the coldness of his character, Fassbender was compulsively watchable. Playing the part of a man who is obsessed with where to apply restraints in his life, there is a scene in which Fassbender subtly emphasises the aloofness and remoteness of Jung by simply failing to react to Sabina’s assault with a letter opener. It is a remarkable scene as Sabina’s aggression is so fleeting and so direct, yet it is barely even allowed to register on the clinical deportment of Fassbender’s Jung. It is safe to say that many thirtysomething leading men in Hollywood will be losing out to Michael Fassbender when it comes to securing the most challenging lead roles over the next decade.
Within the strict limitations of a mainstream cinematic biopic Cronenberg has crafted an intelligent film with a narrative that has clearly been trimmed of any unnecessary fat. It falls somewhere between works like Amadeus and Immortal Beloved, whilst avoiding much of the bombast of both those works. Almost certainly the Freudians and the Jungians will pick apart the slenderness of the plotting and the superficial rendering of the theory, but how else are such lives to be explored in narrative form. The film should certainly pique the curiosity of a few people hitherto unaware of the significance of these two great men and that is a testament to the ingenuity and talent of director, writer and cast. One last point that needs to be made is the weight that Cronenberg gives to issues of Jewishness over the course of the narrative. It appears to suggest that a major element in Freud’s attraction to Jung was the clearly Aryan legitimacy that his Protestant-Swiss background lent to the psychoanalysis movement. Jung’s attraction to Sabina is what appears to drive the fiercest wedge between himself and Freud, which suggests curious reservoirs of self-loathing in amongst Freud’s careful pragmatism. This issue of Jew and Aryan throbs away underneath the Jung-Freud feud and is illuminated somewhat by Freud’s final discussion with Sabina, in which Freud effectively reminds her of her Jewishness. In the increasingly anti-semitic tenor of the times, this seems a highly plausible fear for Freud to hold.