After finally getting to view Cronenberg’s excellent, and I’m afraid underrated A Dangerous Method, I’ve written a piece about his shot selection and scene manipulation. Feel free to check it out here if interested:
“In many of these frames – an example is below – if you look to the right edge of the frame you’ll find that the focal fall off is far more dramatic than anywhere else.”
…and typically the foreground character is to the right, directing our eyes along the the plane of their face toward the person in the back, effectively ‘compositing’ the two together or as conscious of each other.
Then notice how later on in the movie, especially the closing scene, the foreground character is now to the left, the blurred vignette (that’s the term for that falloff technique by the way) is removed, and the characters are no longer ‘together’ in the same path of life. This happens after the final set-up of the foreground-background design, when Jung is behind Freud on the ship to the United States after taking a power stance against him in accordance to class (“I’m going this way; my wife took the honor of securing this trip and I am riding first class.”) and then offers to psychoanalyze Freud. Freud’s response? “I won’t tell you my dream, as I believe it will undermine my authority.” From then on the discord in all of the characters’ relationships is no longer an underlying neuroses by brought out as a direct confrontation.
Their consciousnesses are no longer aligned.
“This is a scene that is all about power – who has it, and who gets it. She is frame right, he frame left. Though she initially dominates the frame by virtue of being larger and closer to the camera, it soon becomes apparent, given the positioning of the characters and his superior placement, that this is initially Jung’s frame.”
Your shot breakdown for the two scenes you selected are pretty spot on. Nothing to add there.
“The final scene that I want to look at is the simplest in terms of shot selection. The camera appears to be on the water and dollying towards a figure at the dock in the distance, whom we soon understand to be Sabina.”
Keep in mind also that this follows a definitive closing line on the relationship between Jung and his wife, delivered by the latter. The effect is to show he’s been pushed toward Sabina, and indeed that he’s finally let himself float toward her all this time. Keep in mind that he does so in her boat. She has just enabled their relationship.
“As in the first scene analyzed here, this would seem to indicate his gaze, and thus his power.”
But at this point the power has already begun to subtly shift. He’s already been one-upped by Freud, Sabine and he are no longer able to contain their relationship (same thing, how Freud has revealed it), Jung’s wife has ‘given’ him to Sabina which gives her power over their relationship and reclaims the power she never had over her and Freud’s (made complete at the end when she tells Sabine to psychoanalyze Jung), and the floating boat POV perspective is somewhat hazy and displaced, in fact it’s imbalanced in two ways:
1) the horizon line canted to the far, far right.
2) the rule of thirds is deliciously, beautifully broken in the same way you point out the 180 rule is broken before: the water fills up half of the frame where in a typical shot of that type it would fill a third, and the trees at the top are cut off to claustrophobic effect rather than skyline being available across the frame to create a more quote-unquote ‘balanced world’. The effect is purposefully surreal: Jung is floating toward his death (the death of his power) which is embodied by Sabine and then his listless (powerless) lay in her grasp.
Also something something vaginal shape of the boat mrr.
“However, the cut to the odd, off-balance framing in shot 2 suggests otherwise.”
The two shots are cohesively unbalanced, but both you and I acknowledge the framing toward the same point.
“A Dangerous Method isn’t quite a film that unwraps. That would imply that there’s something complete at the end. It doesn’t exactly unravel. That would imply that it was whole to begin with. Instead, the latest film from one-time B-film maven turned small prestige-picture-helmer, David Cronenberg, shifts, constantly playing with expectations and maneuvering its audience in the same way that its protagonists maneuver their patients. "
Well the thing is at the point of taking this film as a whole, it’s better to be familiarized with narrative structure and beat theory than psychoanalysis because for once the two are inverted. Typically someone makes a narrative film and psychoanalists then find a ‘repressed meaning’ in it. Here, Cronenberg takes the breakdown of Freud and Jung’s relationship (and Spielrein’s and Gross’s infection of it) and constructs their theories of psychoanalysis itself as power plays that reveal the underlying battle that is raging between them.
“Cronenberg deftly navigates the film from a kind of claustrophobic rigidity towards a more open compositional style in its third act.”
I wouldn’t call the third act ‘open’ but broken open. The early segments are each character trying to frame themselves and each other, the third act is where the act of framing itself has broken down and so they’re in more chaotic positions.
“This ending is therefore not so much about loneliness or failure (Jung’s prediction of war comes true after all), but rather of the period of psychoanalytical inactivity (read: Jung’s literal stasis) that is impending, but which will ultimately give rise to its rebirth.”
Cronenberg ends right at the climax, and leaves the denouement to pure text, indicating he’s not really all that interested in wrapping up the story but leaving it with us despite historical knowledge to the contrary. Interesting in fact to see that Jung’s ‘failure’ in gaining power over the other players of psychoanalysis ultimately leads to a longer and happier life. The closing text is irony.
“Cronenberg’s ability to delicately direct his audience as much as his actors leads to frequent shifts in the balance of power among the principle characters. The ultimate result: a deceptively precise and masterful piece of direction that frequently thwarts expectations despite being a work of non-fiction.”
Hear hear. This movie is already underrated considering it had an average of 3/5 stars when I rated it today.