Thursday, 23 February 2012

A Dangerous Method

2011. Dir: David Cronenberg. Starring: Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Vincent Cassel and Sarah Gadon. ●●●○○

Right now I'm resisting a terrible urge, you could almost say I'm repressing a desire to sneak out a dreadful pun. I want to avoid bringing up the title of Christopher Hampton's play on which this psychoanalysis themed movie is based. Oh, but that urge is so strong. Why should I stifle my emotional needs, why should I risk damaging my id by holding back it's darkest aims, back in 2002 Hampton wrote a play about the shifting relationships between Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud and Sabina Spielrein and he called it after the method they developed on their patients "The Talking Cure". So with a flourish I have to dub David Cronenberg's A Dengerous Method the "talky cure".

We open with Keira Knightley's Spielrein, a Russian Jew with pronounced hysteria, transported to the sparse mental health hospital in part run by the emphatically repressed Jung (Fassbender continuing his impressive run of star-making performances). In a series of short scenes we investigate the background to Spielrein's neurosis, with Jung coaxing out her emotional turmoil through a programme of one to one sessions. Knightley's performance has been the subject of huge debate both for and against her severe, jaw-clenching work in these early scenes. Personally I can't speak for the veracity of her work, but when contrasted and taken with the delicate almost blank work from Fassbender, the two of them make a compelling duo. As we see the methodology and results of Jung's technique the film both draws the audience in and shocks with the disturbing sexual fantasies plaguing Spielrein's past.

It isn't long though before the films derails, highlighting it's stage origins we then follow multiple duologues between the two main characters, Viggo Mortensen as the paranoid, pompous Sigmund Freud, anarchist and anti-psychiatrist Otto Gross (Cassel) and Jung's unfortunate slightly dull wife played by a winsome Sarah Gadon (who you might, but probably won't, remember from Dream House last year).

The most important relationships that develop are the father(figure)-son pairing between Freud and Jung, focussing on the similarities in their approach until their mutually exclusive theories concerning the future of psychoanalysis irrevocably splitting the two minds. We also see the coupling between Jung and Spielrein escalate into sado-masochistic physical and emotional relationship with Jung taking up the crop from Sabina's foreboding father.

That said whilst all of these individual scenes see some excellent performances and insightful dialogue regarding the competing ideas of the main players that is very much all they are. Each scene trips along giving another opportunity for two thesps to face off but without any of it really adding up to anything. They slow down too, each scene coming more ponderously than the last. At one point the film virtually stopped whilst characters wrote to each other then read these letters on their own, utterly tedious film-making.

What's worse is the subject could be really interesting, psychoanalysis is by it's very nature imperative to our understanding of our very souls, the discussions between Jung and Freud that confront the fundamental differences in their approaches should be extreme clashes of personality, philosophically engaging, dissecting theories that tore up societal norms up to that point. Instead we have broad pronouncements of medical scepticism, cheap shots at the fringe or over-simplified elements of their divergent theories, interminable discussions about dreams and - finally - an apparently true but still totally incomprehensible discussion about Ancient Egyptian civilizations and how that reflected their own situation.

The craft work on the film is, as I'm sure you can imagine in early 20th century design, impeccable and I'd especially like to call out the functional and character driven set decoration by Gernot Thöndel (although I understand Viggo Mortensen provided all his own props and the books in Freud's study).

Ultimately this film fails, Cronenberg is unable to lift the script from it's stage origins or add any spice to the proceedings once we leave the confines of Sabina's cure. I can recommend it only for the performances or - if you're a fan of Keira - the first 30 minutes.


Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Thoughtful criticisms which I understand. This one took a time for me to warm up to (B-, to a B) but I get you. I think I too made the comment about its stage title "talking" cure. I think Keira is fantastic, as is the acting all-round. I find it to be a bit too, as you suggest, antiseptic considering its basis but the more I think of it the more I consider that that's Hampton and Cronenberg's film might be trying to do.

Salient points, regardless.

Runs Like A Gay said...

It's a terrible pun, but it's so difficult to resist.

I suspect you're right when you say Hampton and Cronenberg might have been aiming for a deliberately distancing experience. However that still distances.