David Cronenberg’s said in interviews that he considers himself a card-carrying existentialist. While it’s a broad school of thought that encapsulates everyone from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to Dostoyevsky and Camus, there is a certain kind of anxiety in Cronenberg films that can be considered existential.
To many, however, Cronenberg’s work has been more closely associated with psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, particularly with regard to Freud. Much of this is thanks to his genre work, like the unbridling id of They Came From Within (aka Shivers), the externalization of revenge fantasy in The Brood, or that strange armpit phallus in Rabid. There are also those overt vaginas (Videodrome) and potential vaginas (eXistenZ) in his films, like Georgia O’Keeffe by way of Francis Bacon. When you consider the fact that Freud’s thought owes a lot to Nietzsche’s, you realize that Cronenberg has been playing broadly with both existential and psychoanalytic concerns from the very beginning.
So that brings us to A Dangerous Method, in which one of Freud’s most famous students undergoes numerous existential crises. This should make for a compelling emotional and intellectual drama — emphasis on “should.”
A Dangerous Method
Director: David Cronenberg
Release Date: November 23, 2011 (New York and Los Angeles)
A Dangerous Method follows Carl Gustav Jung (Michael Fassbender), the friend and student of Freud who would eventually develop the notion of the collective unconscious. Into his care comes a troubled young Russian named Sabina (Keira Knightley). Jung thinks he can help her by training her in psychoanalysis, and so their status goes from therapist-and-patient to teacher-and-student. Jung and Sabina become more intimate over the years, and they struggle with their desires for each other. Whatever choices they make, they must deal with the guilt, though it seems to weigh more on Jung than Sabina.
For many of her early scenes, Knightley’s performance is all trembling underbites and fearful eyes. Her crazed fits gradually give way to poise as her neuroses are aired. The difference in demeanor is well done, and later in the film, it gives the slightest quiver of her chin an extra sense of devastation. There was something about her accent that seemed a little too loose, though. Russian is difficult to pull off consistently and convincingly, and trying too hard makes you sound like a Bond villain. Better the occasional slip than the alternative.
This lust between Jung and Sabina is complicated by Dr. Otto Gross, played by Vincent Cassel. Otto is sent by Freud as a patient for Jung to treat, but there seems to be some ulterior motive. Otto is pure id. He makes Jung question monogamy, trying to bring out the libertine behind the façade of social convention. At one point during an impromptu therapy session, Otto tells Jung that he should just give in and ravage Sabina within an inch of her life. Fassbender plays Jung so tightly wound that his reluctance to reject Otto’s suggestion speaks volumes — for people who intellectualize the f**k out of sex, a polite smile can be a volcano.
Freud pops in throughout the movie played by Viggo Mortensen, Cronenberg’s favorite leading man of late. In each appearance, Freud seems a little bushed, but there’s this quality to the body language that suggests he’s used to praise and is always certain of himself. He slouches because his reputation gives him the right to slouch. He’s always sucking on a cigar for a touch of dry Freudian humor; there’s also a fine visual gag that involves the shape of the chair in his study. (Sometimes it’s not just a chair.)
I mentioned that Fassbender is tightly wound as Jung, and this is pronounced in the scenes where Freud and Jung are together. At the beginning of their friendship, Jung is clearly the student and Freud clearly the mentor accepting his praise. Jung is so enamored with Freud that he compares him to Galileo; Freud instead thinks of himself as Columbus merely identifying a new land but never sufficiently mapping it. This distinction comes back again, though unstated, when the duo visits America together later in their lives. By then their professional and personal relationship was beginning to sour.
The difficulty of chronicling complex years-long relationships is figuring out what to leave in and what to leave out. A Dangerous Method covers the years 1904-1913, and Cronenberg does a lot of skipping forward. There’s something disjointed about the film as a consequence. Months intervene between scenes and while there’s a continuity of character, it feels like we’re not quite seeing everything we should. We want to linger, but we need to move.
One of the key reasons that Freud and Jung had a falling out was their differing opinions about psychotherapy. Freud was locked in his psychoanalytic ways and expected deference from his disciples, whereas Jung was branching out into his own territory rooted in mystical notions about the human spirit. Not only did the student question the teacher, he created his own way of thinking. Ideas are central to the end of this relationship, but A Dangerous Method doesn’t really let the ideas come out.
For instance, we’re never shown how Jung developed his own theories. We get references to them — the anima/animus, synchronicity, some nautical archetypes — but I never got the sense that we saw a clash of two irresolvable ideologies. Admittedly, my understanding of Freud and Jung is rudimentary, but it seemed odd that in a disagreement between two influential intellectuals, the emotional pain of their friendship wasn’t conveyed in the passionate conviction for their own ideas. Ideas for these two men were like sex, and the potent intellectual intimacy was repressed.
And, come to think of it, even the actual sex in the movie feels repressed. There’s a little sadism and masochism, but it’s not depraved, erotic, or cathartic; it’s clinical — turn your head, cough, and ask me nicely to do it again, liebchen. Cronenberg’s films always did have some kind of cold eye to them, but the sexuality tended to stand out because there was a genuine interest in flesh. In Crash, for instance, there was emotional and narrative content in the sex. But in A Dangerous Method, it feels staid; some of the sex scenes are even viewed obliquely via a mirror. It just feels like a case study rather than a novel or a stirring work of non-fiction. It’s the difference between the word “intercourse” and the word “sex.”
Some of the great visual touches in A Dangerous Method are in the therapy scenes. Here Cronenberg seems in the most control. There’s one session in particular between Jung and Sabina early in the film that’s quite spectacular. Both Jung and Sabina share the shot in deep focus. As Sabina reveals more about her neuroses, Jung becomes a blur in the background. Eventually, Sabina dominates the shot, not just because she’s doing all the talking but because the patient has essentially done the therapist’s work. In that shot, we are with Sabina the person and no longer mere observers of Sabina the patient.
We are observers throughout the rest of the movie, however. There’s just not enough emotional resonance or intellectual debate there. The deeper existential stuff feels hidden under the surface or passed over between scenes. Watching A Dangerous Method, I was always aware of my role as viewer, that I was an audience member — there were seats in front of me, there was someone to my left. I was always at a distance from the material.
Like a therapist, I felt an urge to say to the screen, “But tell me how you really feel.”
The patient, resistant to my request, was silent and restive. He clearly had something on his mind.