Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, 2011)

David Cronenberg throws the audience for a loop from the start of A Dangerous Method. The stately opening credits, unfolding gracefully over close-ups of ink blotting the pages of correspondence, is so elegant that it cannot even be taken for a sort of proto-Rorschach test. It is as conventional and soft a commencement to a costume drama as credits can be. Then, Cronenberg cuts straight to a shot of Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) shrieking, cackling and hissing against the glass, resembling less her usual, composed and corseted ladies than Jane Eyre's Bertha, the embodiment of the repressed female id. In an instant, the director pushes under the "proper" surface of the period drama to confront its twisted secrets. The fact that most of the film occurs in bright daylight is no coincidence; the monsters that eat at these characters are not creatures that come out in the night. They are in all of us at all times, whether they're visible or not.

Cronenberg's style has always been formal, but A Dangerous Method is so classically composed that a newcomer would never guess its maker had also directed such body horror classics as Videodrome and Crash. Yet by placing Sabina's "hysteria" upfront, the director clues us in on his basic aim: the film is merely the psychological root of his horror movies. As Knightley writhes around in mental agony, Cronenberg fully subsumes his tumorous grotesqueries fully into the mind, which can torment the body well enough without tumorous growths or other icky, hyperbolic infections. As Glenn Kenny rightly put it on Twitter shortly after the film's premiere, Sabina, and her sexuality, is the traditional monster in a typical Cronenberg film.

Taken to the Burghölzli clinic outside Zurich, Sabina is placed under the care of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbener), then the assistant to the hospital's director. Jung decides to treat Sabina with the "talking cure," a theory developed by Sigmund Freud but potentially never applied to a patient. Sabina's case will eventually bring Jung into contact with his idol and, for various reasons, help tear them apart. Their interaction, along with Jung's increasingly unethical relationship with Sabina, subtly brings out the theories of both psychiatrists, even as the director gradually reveals that the doctors themselves embody these same prototypical ideas about the workings of the human mind.

Viggo Mortensen plays Freud with such paternalism that he casts himself as the Oedipal father to be destroyed by Jung, something that the Austrian even voices aloud later in the film. Freud looks to Jung as a potential successor but urges the man to stop bringing "mysticism" into psychoanalysis just as the field is finally beginning to be accepted by the scientific community at large. But Freud's anti-religious streak has a clear personal impetus: he confides in Jung that the Jewish identity of the Viennese psychoanalysts will make the struggle to be taken seriously that much harder. A confused Jung asked why that would matter, to which Freud dryly responds, "That, if I may say so, is an exquisitely Protestant remark." Jung comes to resent what he perceives to be Freud's close-mindedness on this issue,  but Freud's little jab has a point. Not that the man can't be unreasonable: having to support a wife and six children on a modest income, Freud casts petty sideways glances at the wealth into which Jung married, tacitly sniping the opulent house and travel conditions the Swiss doctor enjoys.

Sabina's own mental state is more explicitly revealed through Knightley's performance. Her bony, angular frame is perfect for Spielrein's wracked, involuntarily self-punishment, her uncontrollable sex drive clashing with her virginity until it seems as if her body thrashes in such fits because that drive is looking for an alternate escape. (The blood of her broken hymen shown later in some ways seems like the remains of some felled mythical beast, or at the very least the opening of a release valve.) She exhibits the animus, the male within the female, when she takes the initiative in kissing Jung, and it's amusing that the progressive psychiatrist would take the all too traditionally male excuse of subsequently blaming her for "seducing" him. Later, Sabina finds herself directly and indirectly trapped between Jung and Freud when she becomes a psychiatrist in her own right and must write her own dissertation with the divergent theorists' views. Her heart favors Jung, but her head tends to side with Freud, who at one point conspiratorially tells the Russian Jewish Spielrein of Jung, "Put not your trust in Aryans," asking for her allegiance out of the same religious identity he buries in public.

Cronenberg uses split diopter lenses to crush characters against each other while still emphasizing distance. It makes Jung, Freud and Spielrein into each other's dualities, even their shoulder angels. It also has the effect of making every bit of dialogue resemble the setup for Jung's approach to Freud's talking cure with Sabina, in which he places the woman looking forward as he sits behind asking questions for minimal distraction. This turns every conversation into a therapy session, which somewhat resembles a Catholic confession, a wry twist given Freud's overt objection to religious influence in his scientific approach.

Long, generally static takes drag out these forms of therapy to excruciating lengths. When Sabina finally voices what it is that torments her, Cronenberg lingers on Knightley's face, horrified at herself for speaking aloud her demons. Indeed, it can be harder to watch her come clean about her sexual hangups than it is to see Seth Brundle catalog his own rotted-off body parts in The Fly; at times, Cronenberg moves in so close and refuses to cut for so long that my eyes darted every which way but toward the screen in sheer discomfort. But that's the point; Knightley, aghast at herself for revealing her kinks, is not so different from people today, who continue to hold such open conversation about sex taboo a century later. By breaking through the social barriers that cage her, Sabina is set on the path to recovery. As utterly agonizing as it can be, opening up can be healthy, and sometimes talking really can be a cure.

There are jokes sprinkled throughout A Dangerous Method—Freud in particular is wry and witty, and he is always seen with a cigar in hand or mouth—but the film has an air of quiet tragedy to it, the important breakthroughs made by Jung, Freud, even Spielrein (her dissertation on the links between sex and death almost certainly influenced some of the two men's later theories) nevertheless unable to fully overcome their fears and desires. Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), the brief prodigy of Freud, advises Jung "Never repress anything," but as the closing text of the film reveals, he'll die penniless and hungry by the end of the decade. That places Otto at one extreme, and the totally inhibited Sabina of the film's beginning at the other. But the medium between the two, Freud's assertion of a necessary level of repression, is anything but a happy one. A Dangerous Method closes with Jung sitting in empty social comfort, paying a dear psychic price for that normalcy, the full extent of which is borne out with the revelation of his subsequent breakdown. We also learn that Freud had good reason to worry about his ethnic and religious identity, him being kicked out of Vienna in 1939 and Spielrein murdered by the SS in 1942. The sense of barely suppressed pain and sorrow that ends the film is only worsened by these intertitles, making for one of the most tragic of Cronenberg's films. But there is hope for the future: as Jung's expositional title card notes, the same nervous breakdown that incapacitates him during the First World War will only make him emerge a stronger psychiatrist. As he says to the equally troubled but accomplished psychoanalyst Sabina has become by the end, "Only the wounded physician heals."


  1. Excellent review of this thoughtful film. I especially like how you point out that most of this film takes place at day in sunshine. The demons that inhabit these characters - and indeed, all of us - are present at all times.

    It is important also that you note that this is not the typical Croneberg film; here he has no need to resort to violence as with most of his works, but instead focuses on the turmoil of the lives of the three main characters. The unrest in their souls is just as - or more - dramatic any violent situations could be.

  2. Yeah, I think it's a real shame so many seem to be willing to dismiss it for that very brightness, mistaking that the film is very much stylistically keeping with Cronenberg's direction, it's just what's in the frame that's different.