Monday, February 13, 2012

Caitlin's Review of A Dangerous Method

A Sure-Fire Plan
by Caitlin Murphy

From the opening images of A Dangerous Method – the usually sedate Keira Knightley thrashing against the confines of a horse-drawn carriage, destined for an asylum – we are thrown into a world preoccupied with the tension between chaos and control; a world blinking its eyes open to the big, new ideas of psychoanalysis.  Directed by David Cronenberg, a man typically drawn to the dark, deep and disturbed, the film, though eminently watchable, is quite a lot subtler and safer than its title or director’s name might imply.

Based on Christopher Hampton’s play, The Talking Cure (itself based on a book, by John Kerr), the film looks at Carl Jung’s (Michael Fassbender) encounter with Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a Russian patient who suffered from apparent hysteria, but who eventually became one of the first female psychoanalysts.  Though the historical record isn’t clear on the nature of Jung and Spielrein’s relationship, the drama suggests that it was not only sexual, but indulged Spielrein’s deep masochistic fantasies.  Spielrein, and questions about her treatment, ultimately lead Jung to his first meeting with Freud (Viggo Mortensen); and though the three don’t quite land in a love triangle – despite the movie poster image seemingly reaching for this – their paths intertwine over questions of impropriety, the nature of desire, and the already shifting ground of their newly branded science.

Mortensen, a recent usual suspect in Cronenberg’s work, is both subdued and grand as Freud (if this seems a bit of unlikely casting, by the way, the role was originally meant for Christopher Waltz, who apparently dropped out for Carnage).  And though I’m actually new to Fassbender’s career, there is clear reason why his star is so quickly rising.  The chemistry between the two men is palpable.  You sense that beneath the characters of Freud and Jung, who have much to say to each other (13 hours worth on first meeting apparently) are two actors who have much to say to each other as well.  Having quite prepared myself to dislike Knightley (mostly through witnessing her previous work), I was rather surprised by her performance.  Though some might argue she is ‘over the top’, I’m guessing that ‘over-the-topness’ is indeed a symptom of that pesky hysteria; and though I wasn’t completely sold on her performance,  I wasn’t totally tossed out by it either. 

Jung’s extra-marital, sado-masochistic relationship with the unstable Spielrein of course begs that eternal of human questions, the one they roll over ad nauseum – is it better to repress our baser urges in the interest of keeping civilization well-oiled, or cast off conventions to be freely and authentically ourselves.  Essentially, what havoc is wreaked when we unleash the dogs of desire, and is it ever worth it?  The film reinforces this theme, by itself opening and closing – moving back and forth between cramped, stuffy interior spaces, and open, outdoor ones, invariably situated next to  water. 

Steeped in the examination of the human psyche, the script points to some other enduring debates:  is monogamy actually a healthy or feasible idea?  What meaning can we find in our dreams?  What responsibility do therapies have for developing tools to heal problems, not just diagnose them?  Is someone who has suffered a break with the mind, actually best suited to consider the mind?  The most truly disturbing idea presented in the film though, for me, is when Spielrein confesses that her father’s horrific physical abuse was actually sexually thrilling to her, what led her to equate violence and humiliation with sexual pleasure.  There’s something supremely untenable in the moment of this confession – uncomfortably, you understand the truth in what she says at the same moment that you completely reject it.  This was the most dangerous terrain the script ventured onto, and it perhaps stepped a little too quickly and lightly over it.

A Dangerous Method is obviously a thinky/talky film and so it didn’t surprise me later to find out it was based on other very literary sources.  And though the story does work as a film, there’s not much particularly cinematic about it (especially not in the  unforgivable CGI used for the boat trip to America).  One wonders what drew Cronenberg to such an intimate drama, that quietly unfolds through conversation and correspondence, very obviously intended for the stage.  I certainly don’t mean to suggest that the film is badly-directed.  It’s not.  But my (albeit vague) sense of Cronenberg’s career leads me to expect films that put forth more personal visions, reveal much stronger directorial stamps.

A Dangerous Method is ultimately the kind of film that happens when you take inherently compelling historical material, put it in the hands of an experienced, smart writer, and then put the resulting script in the hands of serious (read: actual) actors.  In this way, it’s not unlike last year’s favourite, The King’s Speech.  Both screenplays boast deftly handled exposition, engaging dialogue, and a keen sense of economy and limitation, and both films feature inspired performances and brilliant casting chemistry.  (I do think the stakes were clearer and higher in The King’s Speech though, making it, ultimately, a more dramatically satisfying film.)  Essentially,  A Dangerous Method succeeds most in the same places that good plays do – script and acting.  

It’s difficult to imagine a time when talking would be considered a novel approach to psychological unease.  And in this sense, it’s always a challenge to put audiences in the place of our predecessors who were shaken up or scandalized by ideas that now feel commonplace.  Typically it ends up nothing more powerful than an intellectual exercise, but, like the film, still a worthy one.

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