a dangerous method

A Dangerous Method: Don’t be aFreud, Jung lady, there’s method in the madness

At first glance, David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method seems a rather stark departure from the so-called Baron of Blood’s normal fare – a restrained period piece set in turn of the 20th century Middle Europe, the film offers an intriguing dramatisation of the early days of psychoanalysis.  Based on Christopher Hampton’s play The Talking Cure (itself adapted from the non-fiction book A Most Dangerous Method by John Kerr), it centers upon a pair of turbulent and interlinked relationships; one the doomed friendship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his mentor, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), the other a torrid affair between Jung and his patient-turned-lover, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly), who became one of the first female psychoanalysts.  Unsurprisingly though, Cronenberg remains true to form in his unyielding dedication to psychological undertones and inner turmoil, and manages to elevate the historical drama into a captivating and intelligent character study.

The acting – thrust into naked exposure here – is uniformly superb.  Interestingly enough, perhaps the most primal performance is Knightly’s turn as the beguiling and complex Spielrein.  Cleverly choosing not to overplay what might have easily descended into caricature, she brings both raw vulnerability and keen intellect to the role in a way that allows her to chart the character’s maturation from a wild-eyed hysteric to a budding physician and analyst in her own right.  And while Knightly conveys Spielrein’s mental anguish more than convincingly through verbal tics and disturbing facial contortions, she never allows this to detract from a multifaceted and dynamic portrayal.  Mortensen is also in fine form as the legendary father of psychoanalysis.  Soft-spoken but inexorably persuasive, he paints Freud as a man of peculiar contradictions – an iconoclastic maverick grown stubborn and jaded with age, and one whose dogmatic fixation on the sex drive as the sole explanator for human behaviour leads him into conflict with the more open-minded and mystically-oriented Jung.  It is Fassbender though, who, delivering an understated and pitch-perfect performance, ultimately grounds the proceedings, serving as the fulcrum on which the film’s dual plotlines balance and converge.  Earnest and idealistic, his Jung undergoes a transformative arc of his own as he learns the power of the id firsthand through his mutually eye-opening extramarital relations with Spielrein, and his increasingly bitter ideological feud with Freud.

It’s a slow-paced, dialogue-heavy piece, to be sure.  The narrative clicks forward methodically, and one never gets the sense that Cronenberg has anywhere to be in a hurry; rather than setting up some grand end goal, dramatic payoff or thrilling climax, he simply seems interested in meticulous characterisation and emotional beats.  This certainly gives the film a rather leisurely vibe, but happily the danger of tedium is for the most part averted due to the stellar performances and carefully honed script.  Moreover, the laid-back tempo gives the film a chance to really breathe, allowing Cronenberg to play with and subtly weave psychoanalytical theory into the story even as he explores the idea of the talking cure itself and its implications for human relationships.

Ironically, the only real letdown amidst the libido-fuelled drama is the piece’s own restraint, which feels almost obligatorily enforced on Cronenberg’s part due to genre conventions.  While it’s hardly a universal or overly debilitating flaw, one can’t help but feel that certain moments would have more emotional heft if the film only loosened up a bit.  Nonetheless, the brilliant acting on display ensures that each and every emotion at least impacts us, even if it doesn’t always penetrate quite as viscerally as it could have done.

In the end though, A Dangerous Method constitutes a fascinating film – one that, like its protagonists and the treatment they employ, melds the libidinous and the intellectual in an engaging examination of relationships and the impulses and doubts that underlie them.  A well-crafted and rewarding acting tour de force, it’s a film I highly recommended.

By Gavin Elias

The unsung master of horror finally recognised

As the London Film festival swings round to a close for another year there is a terrifying twist, as veteran horror director David Cronenberg is presented with the highest film honour available on these shores – a fellowship to the BFI. With his new picture A Dangerous Method lighting up the festival with its stars Keira Knightly, Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender, it would otherwise have been easy to forget the enigmatic Canadian director, lurking in the shadowy background. Yet for any whom revere horror, Cronenberg and his award could not be more centre stage.

Beginning his directorial career in the late sixties and early seventies with short pieces such as Stereo and Crimes of the Future, the then still young Cronenberg became a staple piece of the horror scene with films such as Shivers and Rabid. Supposedly having been linked strongly with the director’s role for Return of the Jedi, he went on to define the “body horror” sub-genre, fusing unorthodox and controversial ideas with new plastic realities, creating quirky, if flawed, masterpieces such as Videodrome. The Fly in 1986 has often been marked as the high point of the director’s early career, at least in terms of mainstream success, but Cronenberg’s consistency and oddity throughout his work has placed him up with Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven and William Friedkin in the highest echelons of later 20th century horror. Moving away from genre, if not the style, recent works such as A History of Violence and Eastern Promises delighted critics and audience alike.

There can be no denying the worthiness of the award for a director who has frequently imagined and created distinctive brilliance, often straying into the controversial —  it should be remembered that this award comes despite the fact that the Canadian’s 1996 picture Crash is still outlawed in Westminster. Horror is often forgotten when it comes round to awards season. Rarely has a true chiller gained Academy recognition of any kind. So does this just honouring of a true cinema great mark a new acknowledgement of what genre cinema has to offer? Some approval of films like Black Swan — an Argento film in Aronofsky guise – at the major ceremonies might suggest that those used to the dark may be beginning to experience some of the awards light. Other films such as the Paranormal Activity franchise and Drag Me to Hell have similarly shown that horror is still very affective on the audience-side of the coin. Yet does this really mean that the genre is getting all it deserves? It should be remembered that the presentation of the fellowship to Cronenberg has come after nearly ten years since his last horror picture, and it could well be argued that the award is coming on the back of the critical success of art-house features just like A Dangerous Method. Whatever your opinion, I implore you with Halloween round the corner to remember everything David Cronenberg should be commemorated for, and find his adaption of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.

– Edward Elliott