A Dangerous Method (2011, David Cronenberg)
It seems like director David Cronenberg's entire career as a filmmaker has partially been about poking around in the human psyche, finding strange and creative ways via horror, suspense and drama stories to study what makes up humanity, both psychologically and, in some of his more genre-oriented fare, physically. In that respect, could he be likened to the great early psychologists of the 20th century, Sigmund Freud and Carl Yung? David Cronenberg ,the psychoanalist of the film world! A bit too much? Fair enough. That being said, the director has been lauded numerous times in the past for his astute, provocative observations. How fitting it is, therefore, to see a new film of his, after a 4 year absence no less, that concentrates on the two aforementioned pioneers in the field of medicine.
A Dangerous Method, based on a play which itself was based on a book, has its story take place during the decade preceding the first World War in Austria, a time when new, inventive, provocative, and dare it be said, dangerous methods were explored in the field of psychology. New types of relationships were being formed between patients and their doctors, as is evidenced by in an early scene when Sabina Speilrein (Keira Knightley), a gifted medical student plagued by fearful episodes of psychosis, is brought to the careful attention of one Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), who desires to practice a new methodology: the talking cure. By asking simple questions which belie their immeasurable complexity, Dr. Jung hopes to found out what might be wrong with her. The attempt proves worthwhile given Sabina's impressive improvement, but Jung's road to medical breakthrough take a unique turn after meeting the famous Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), equally brilliant with his techniques of psychoanalysis which predicates that most of a person's ills relate to Man's sexuality in one way or another. While their initial meetings prove inspiring, their relationship eventually becomes strained, the cause of which is both professional and personal.
A couple of years ago, this blog went through the vast majority of director Cronenberg's filmmography in a summertime marathon. One conclusion of the marathon was that the Canadian filmmaker virtually never makes a poor film. The one exception was M. Butterfly, a movie that is by no means 'bad', yet failed to impress on the same levels as most of his other efforts. Looking back on that movie, it feels as though it was the beat by beat elements of the plot which dragged the picture down a few notches. Some of them did not evolve organically as is typically the case with Cronenberg material. There was a forced nature to some of the things that transpired which hinted that the director, himself usually so unhinged with audacious material of that kind, was stifled by the necessity to remain sufficiently faithful to the source material. After spending a weekend thinking about A Dangerous Method, it feels apt to propose a similar conclusion. The director's latest remains a fine piece of cinema, a film that does, in fact, recollect many ideas and themes he has loved to play around with in the past, but never truly soars when it should, especially in the second half when the plot seems so much more timid compared to his usual work. As irony would have it, this is another movie based on a play, hence the probable reason why Cronenberg feels as if his true creativity his being limited in a sense. There is nothing inherently wrong with the story, only that it does not come across as creative as one hopes ,or , quite frankly, as ambitious as one hopes either. When the trio of protagonists, Spielrein, Jung and Freud, see their relationships enter troubled waters, the script pretty much goes through a series of motions that one would assume the story would go through under such circumstances, no more, no less.
That, however, merely concerns the plot-driven aspects of A Dangerous Method. As previously stated, this is not a poor man's film, with one of the many entertaining aspects being the realization of how Cronenberg is relating to tried, tested and true themes through historical figures. Looking back at The Brood, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Crash, Videodrome, it is evident the director enjoys exploring the murky domain of humankind's sexuality, how we identify with it, how it shapes us, as well as the ever complicated relationship between the mind and our physical selves. Each of those films tackles those themes via fictional stories, often horror and sci-fiction related, a technique which makes perfect sense given how the horror and science-fiction genres have, for as long as one can remember, been utilized as venues for exploring the deeper meanings of mankind. A Dangerous Method is a curious albeit à propos turn for the director, in that here he relates the story of two real people who actually explored such ideas. In that respect, the idea of telling their story fits beautifully in the director's filmmography. Never one to keep things too tame, Cronenberg makes the icing on the cake the time at which the audience meets these important figures in the field of psychology, namely, when their ideas and methods were still not widely accepted. At one point Freud even warns Jung about applying the notion of dreams and other such far too nebulous elements into their studies, otherwise they risk further exclusion from the community. Just as Cronenberg's previous films shocked audiences with their sometimes graphic and thought provoking material, A Dangerous Method is a very real movie about very real doctors shocking people with previously unheard of tactics.
Further compounding how difficult it is to assess this picture and possibly further driving the wedge between those who enjoy it and those who do not, there is the matter of how the first and second halves are different in tone and style. This article has already elaborated on how the script fails to impress in its second half. That is when the purer dramatic aspects to the story kick in, when certain characters must go through certain obligatory hurdles in order to advance the story. Some people enjoy such drama, and more power to them. The first half concerns itself far more with the various discussions between either Jung and Spielrein, or Jung and Freud. That is the section of the film some can easily describe as tedious but which this movie reviewer adored. Knowing very little about the matters of psychoanalysis and psychology, it was fascinating to sit back and listen to these two maestros' of their respective fields chatter away about various untested theories, not to mention that another famous doctor makes a cameo appearance, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel). What were their own psychologies? What interested them? What were they curious about? What exactly did they want to find out? Even though it is only actors portraying the doctors, there is nonetheless a fantastic feeling that the audience is in the room with them as these remarkably stimulating and, surprisingly enough, funny conversations are being exchanged. The trio of stars help solidify the believability that these are the real people, with performances that vary greatly all the while fleshing protagonists out. Knightley might be given the most difficult task, having to play the part of the mentally unstable Speilrein. It is the sort of performance which is so often criticized for being showy, although in reality one is hard pressed to fault an actress for truly throwing herself into such an emotionally and , frankly, physically demanding role. The camera frequently rests on her contorted facial expressions to the extent that one completely forgets that when smiling and docile, Knightley is actually a very pretty woman. Mortensen owns the role of Freud, playing the part with a mostly calm and friendly demeanour that hides his reticence towards many of Jung's ideas. There is a smooth pomposity about him that reveals itself further as the story evolves and their relationship deteriorates. Finally, Fassbender is caught in the middle, playing the part of the man whom the audience follows most closely. His is a more mannered performance than all his co-stars, which in effect makes it the least memorable performance. Not a bad one (one doubts if Fassbender is even capable of delivering a bad performance, even if the actor tried), just not carrying the same impact as the others. It is fine and sufficiently convincing, if nothing more.
The die hard Cronenberg fans risk leaving the film slightly underwhelmed, while those who seek great romantic drama risk leaving a little bored for all the hard psychoanalytical jargon tossed around in the first half. In the end, no one leaves the film a true winner, least of all Cronenberg, whose style, as argued in this review, is limited by the source material. There is enough in it for the film to come with a recommendation, albeit a mitigated one.