A Dangerous Method (Dir. David Cronenberg, 2011)
If there were two words that could be used to describe the films of David Cronenberg as a collective, they would most certainly be “body” and “horror”. Since 1969, Cronenberg has used the human body as a canvas for our fears and to explore human sexuality. A common occurrence in his films is a physical transformation mirroring that of a change in the character’s personality (for example, in The Fly, Jeff Goldblum becoming the titular monstrosity reflects his character’s shift from a normal, easy-going scientist to a deranged lunatic), but he has foregone that particular habit this time around in favor of philosophizing on the human body, without actually physically changing it. A Dangerous Method is a historical drama set in the early 1900s, mainly focusing on the relationship between noted psychoanalysts Carl Jung, Sabina Spielrein and Sigmund Freud. I was rather surprised to first hear that Cronenberg’s next film would be a historical piece, but the more you think about it, the more it makes sense: while he is forced to set aside the most common denominator of his films, the setting and characters of this piece allows him to talk at length about the human body, without it feeling like a lecture. This film is as much a retrospective on his entire career, as it is a comprehensive look at the birth of psychoanalysis.
A major complaint I have heard about this movie is that Keira Knightley’s performance is both “off-putting”, and “over the top”. The problem with this criticism is that she portrays a mentally ill young woman and her performance is supposed to make us feel uncomfortable. The beginning of the film consists of Jung (played by Michael Fassbender) attempting to treat Spielrein’s (Knightley) mania using Sigmund Freud’s (Viggo Mortensen) famous method of treatment. The first twenty minutes of the movie are incredibly uncomfortable for the viewer, and Knightley is perfect as the deranged patient who is desperately seeking the affection of her doctor.
It really must be seen in motion to get the full effect, but this opening scene is the closest Cronenberg lets himself get to manipulating the body in this film, as Spielrein juts out her lower jaw in distress and manically waves her arms around in a vain attempt to express her inner torture. These opening scenes paint Jung as the prototypical doctor: professional in the utmost, primarily interested in what’s best for his patient and wary of doing anything that could remotely be considered improper. The framing of this shot reinforces all of this, as it’s almost as if Jung is attempting to put as much distance between himself and his patient that will still allow him to help her. The clinical whiteness of both the walls and Spielrein’s dress remind the viewer, that despite the way Jung is dressed, this is the modern-day equivalent of a mental hospital.
As the film progresses, and we get to know the characters better, it begins to become clear that Jung has more than just his usual professional interest in Spielrein. After discovering his patient’s interest in the field of medicine, he encourages her to help out around the facility, and she becomes more of his assistant than his patient. He rapidly becomes infatuated with her, realizing they have similar interests and that she is easily his intellectual equal. This shot does a tremendous job of expressing all of what I have just told you: Jung can barely open his eyes he is so pained by his attraction to her, and I’m sure Freud would have had a field day with how Jung chomps on his pipe, if he had been present for this scene. Furthermore, Spielrein is engrossed in studying and analyzing her fellow patients, and is even using it to overcome her own manias. Cronenberg’s use of character transformation is much more subtle, and less literal here. Jung’s inner sexuality is slowly being brought out by his patient, and he goes from the stoic intellectual to the debased animal who can’t help but give in to his sexual desires through the course of the film.
A reoccurring theme in A Dangerous Method is that of unconventional father-child relationships. Spielrein is beaten savagely by her father, but still cares deeply for him, and Jung views fellow psychoanalyst Freud as a father figure who he holds in great revere, despite their common disagreements. Just look at the expression on Jung’s face above. he resembles a little boy meeting his favorite athlete for the first time. A large chunk of the film is taken up by conversations and correspondences between these two men, which serve two main purposes: they allow the viewer to learn more about Jung by having Freud challenge his philosophies and beliefs, yet they also nail down the message that all humans share similar desires and wants, even the ones like Jung who seem above such “scandal”. Freud is obsessed with sexuality and attempts to relate almost everything he sees or hears to it, while Jung is doing his level best to repress every sexual feeling he has. Freud almost acts as an extension of Cronenberg himself, as they share similar beliefs on human sexuality.
On a more literal level, I was very impressed by both the costumes and set-pieces of this film. Historical drama pieces such as this are always very tricky to make convincing, especially when you have a well-known cast that the audience is going to associate with other roles and time-periods right off the bat. Yet, never once throughout this film did I doubt the authenticity of what I was seeing. It really felt like I was watching the events unfold, and the surrounding buildings, costumes, vehicles and locales really gave the impression of being authentic of the early 1900s. The lack of budget does sometime show through unfortunately, notably when Jung and Freud sail to America, there are a few bits of jarring, very obvious pieces of CGI that distract the viewer. Despite the lack of budget, Cronenberg still goes to great lengths to be as accurate as possible, even having the hand-written letters written by Jung and Freud be in their native German tongue. The film itself is an incredibly beautiful piece of cinema, and I will leave the reader with a few more shots that I found particularly eye-catching, but have no analysis to accompany them with.