NYFF 2011: A Dangerous Method: Dangerous Only When Repressed

This review originally appeared on Capital New York.

“You’d think they knew we’re on our way, bringing them the plague,” Sigmund Freud says dryly to his colleague, Carl Jung, as their boat pulls into New York harbor on the eve of their joint lecture tour. The plague of psychoanalysis thus arrived in America, where it flourishes to this day.

The relationship of these two men is the topic of David Cronenberg’s latest film, A Dangerous Method, based on the play The Talking Cure by Christopher Hampton (who also wrote the screenplay). A talk-heavy, gorgeously shot film, A Dangerous Method looks at the growing rift between the older Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and his younger colleague Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), with the catalyst being their shared interest in “hysterical” patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), who was also Carl Jung’s lover, and who eventually became a psychoanalyst herself.

A Dangerous Method is meant to be a well-balanced triptych, and with an excellent performance by Mortensen as Freud and a very good performance by Fassbender as Jung, but a wildly reaching performance by Keira Knightley, it almost gets there.

Sigmund Freud, working on his theories of psychoanalysis, came to the conclusion that everything comes from sex, or the repression thereof. Carl Jung, a younger man, experiments with Freud’s talking-cure methods, but has reservations about the idea that sex explains everything. Sabine eventually purges her tormented mind of unspeakable sexual fantasies, and starts sleeping with Jung, eventually coming to the conclusion that the sex instinct and the death instinct are inextricably linked.

Sabine’s contributions to the field of psychoanalysis have only recently come to be understood. It is clear in A Dangerous Method that her case of “hysteria” (a distinctly Victorian malady) spurred Freud and Jung into a competition over whose theories were the most valid, and they fought it out in paper after paper. The rupture between the men was “violent,” as can be seen in their voluminous correspondence.

While Cronenberg isn’t known for creating genteel period pieces, A Dangerous Method is certainly in line with the rest of his work and its obsession with the body, in display in The Dead Zone, The Fly, Dead Ringers and Crash (a film obsessed with the linkage between sex and destruction). At a press conference following the New York Film Festival screening of A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg was asked whom he felt more of an allegiance to, Freud or Jung. Cronenberg said he leaned toward Freud, because “I insist on the reality of the human body.”

Peter Suschitzky shot A Dangerous Method, and the screen is awash in golden light, making the buildings of Vienna look like giant, luscious wedding cakes. The detail in filming is exquisite in the interiors, the costumes and the shot set-ups. Carl Jung and Sabine go for an outing in a two-masted yawl with red sails bought for Jung by his wife, and we see the two of them from above, lying in the boat, their bodies intertwined in a perfect double-S; it is the most beautiful and emotional shot in the film.

Viggo Mortensen, a frequent Cronenberg collaborator, was an unlikely choice for the role of Freud, but he turns in a terrific performance, witty and intelligent – a carefully constructed character study. Freud is contained in his own theories, and chewing on his ubiquitous cigar inevitably brings up questions of his own oral fixations. He is indulgent of Jung’s flights of fancy, at first, but eventually, as psychoanalysis becomes more accepted, he is concerned that Jung’s mysticism will throw it all off the rails. This Freud has some bite. I was so taken with Mortensen’s constantly alert and cunning eyes. He was always thinking, sometimes on a current flowing in the opposite direction of his dialogue. It is a very effective performance, and Mortensen shows us something new in his repertoire.

Michael Fassbender is cinema’s current It-boy, with his gloriously erotic and tormented performance as Mr. Rochester in this year’s Jane Eyre, not to mention his superhero-in-training Magneto in this summer’s X-Men: First Class. Shame, his second collaboration with director Steve McQueen (the first being the harrowing Hunger, about the Irish hunger strike in 1981, in which Fassbender played Bobby Sands) is also screening at the New York Film Festival.

Fassbender wears the period of A Dangerous Method easily. The glasses, the mustache, the waistcoat … all suit him. On a visit to Freud’s house, Jung holds up the maid by his place at the table, so he can take enough food to feed 10 men. These men, coldly analytical in many ways, men of science, were also clearly men of great appetite.

But they were not pathologized for it to the degree women were. This is a disconnect the film could have explored more deeply. It’s common knowledge that “uterus” and “hysteria” are closely linked etymologically (often meaning one and the same thing, therefore “hysterectomy”, etc.). Hysteria can be seen as a completely logical response to being a woman in a sexist society, the rigid controlling and pathologizing of their bodies, their fears of sex not being something neurotic but a valid reaction to not wanting to be pregnant for 50 percent of their lives. Jung and Freud, then, discussing things like penises, and orgasm, did so from a position of privilege. Biology matters. Try to put yourself in womens’ shoes.

To understand and incorporate ravenous “appetite” into a buttoned-up world of convention and propriety was one of the goals of psychoanalysis. Our subconscious minds are filled with chaos and darkness. Jung and Freud tried to impose order.

Keira Knightley, as Sabine, suffers from great hunger, too, and the violently jutting jaw and contorted limbs she shows in the earliest scenes are supposedly indicative of her illness. Knightley has never been better than in her awkward youth in Bend It Like Beckham, as the lanky glamorous tomboy athlete, a part perfectly suited to her particular strengths as an actress. I don’t believe her in a corset and I don’t believe her in an apron or a bonnet. Knightley gets a lot of great parts, but her acting craft is sometimes not up to the task. Knightley did a lot of research into Sabine’s particular malady, and is clearly reaching in her portrayal of hysteria. I see the strain; I see her reaching. While an actress trying to stretch and grow is admirable, Knightley is out of her depth here. Picture Kate Winslet in the role. No comparison.

In the first scene, where we see her being dragged against her will into Jung’s hospital, Knightley writhes and screams. I couldn’t help but think of a similar scene, from Norma Rae, when Sally Field is dragged out of the factory and forced into a police car. Director Martin Ritt gave Sally Field one piece of direction for that scene: “Do not let them put you in that car.” Sally Field played that objective within an inch of her life. You feared for the cops. By contrast, when Knightley protests, it looks like she’s acting.

The screenplay for A Dangerous Method wears its staginess openly in its commitment to long conversations between two characters. The screenplay itself is a “talking cure.” Sex is serious, and a topic worthy of in-depth discussion, and the sense is palpably real in A Dangerous Method that old barriers were breaking down, allowing the formerly unsayable things to come pouring out. At one point, when Sabine is telling Jung one of her more horrifying dreams and how she felt when she woke up, Jung listens quietly. When she finishes, he asks her a simple question, “Were you masturbating?”

She was. The acknowledgement – not just that she has desires, but that her desires can come from darkness – and his casual acceptance that sex drive doesn’t play nice with societal norms, still feels like a revelation and a revolution.

Our society continues to have trouble with the implications of the sex drive. Say what you will about psychoanalysis, either Freudian or Jungian, but it was a serious attempt to understand why we are the way we are. Although world events are rarely mentioned in A Dangerous Method, they are still accounted for in the film in an eerie way. As these two men hashed out their differences, discussing sex and death and dreams with one another, the Guns of August were already rolling into place. World War I would soon be unleashed upon the world.

Cronenberg directs A Dangerous Method with elegance and precision, highlighting the intellectual and sexual opposition between the three main characters.

In today’s cinema, sex is often treated in a juvenile and cruel-minded way, and seriousness about sex is scorned as either pretentious or unrealistic. A Dangerous Method is a welcome change. Let’s talk about sex. It may cure us all.

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2 Responses to NYFF 2011: A Dangerous Method: Dangerous Only When Repressed

  1. Paul H. says:

    That’s a wonderfully elegant review, Sheila, I really enjoyed it.

    I’ve never understood why Keira Knightly is A list. She’s always been mediocre.

  2. sheila says:

    Thanks, Paul. She is getting raves and I am totally baffled.

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