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David Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method"

"A meticulous, electric costume drama of adultery and rivalry."

"'They were experimenting on themselves,' says David Cronenberg, with no small amount of satisfaction, about the psychoanalytic all-stars of his superb new film, A Dangerous Method." Nicolas Rapold's met him and writes up an interview-slash-review for the Voice. "It's the dawn of the 20th century, and we are present for the messy birth of psychoanalysis as handsome, ambitious Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) puts into practice the radical ideas of his outspoken mentor, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and takes extra special care of his first talking-cure patient, the brilliant, hot, hysterical Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). Trysts with Spielrein and rifts with Freud follow, in a meticulous, electric costume drama of adultery and rivalry, shot through with self-examination and the rippling risks of acknowledging one's own desire."

But Andrew Hultkrans, writing for Artforum, prefers the early scary ones: "The arc of David Cronenberg's career as a director mirrors that of an idiosyncratic underground band that slowly finds mainstream acceptance, its skills improving as its aesthetics plane out to inoffensive craftsmanship…. Among directors who have managed to sell some popcorn, there are few, if any, whose filmographies can match the consistently twisted subjectivity on display in Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979), Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986), Dead Ringers (1988), and Naked Lunch (1991). Clearing his throat with M. Butterfly (1993), but truly starting with Spider (2002), Cronenberg left the twitching viscera behind and focused on more 'mature' subjects; themes of psychological transformation and/or delusion were still present, but the films seemed designed for positive reviews in the New Yorker instead of Fangoria. He'd been celebrated for his auteurist movies by postmodern theorists and leather academics for years, and, of course, revered by fans of gore. He had highbrow and lowbrow covered. Since then, he's been attempting to furrow the middlebrow. Not coincidentally, he also stopped writing his own screenplays." In A Dangerous Method, "Cronenberg's direction is supremely tasteful and controlled, but almost airless. Even the spankings seem studied. From a man who once trafficked in truly dangerous methods — 'gynecological tools for operating on mutant women,' say — this is hard to accept."

Writing for Filmmaker, Peter Bowen is particularly interested in Cronenberg's "use of the film and photographs of the French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot in recreating the condition of hysteria as seen in Keira Knightley's character…. Freud, who studied with Charcot in 1885-1886, was deeply influenced by Charcot's attempt to understand the nature of hysteria, especially in Charcot's belief that the physical contortions demonstrated by people with hysteria might have a neurological (or psychoanalytic) root, rather than being the effect of a physical injury…. To document the nature of hysteria, Charcot hired the photographer Albert Londe in 1878 to be the medical photographer at Paris's Salpêtrière Hospital. In that position, Londe devised a number of camera experiments to capture the motion of hysterics, experiments in motion not unlike those conducted by cinema precursor Eadweard Muybridge. As such, Knightley's awkward movements not only have a historical antecedent, but mark one of the first intersections of movies and madness."

More from Alex Carnevale (This Recording) and Cassady Dixon (Cinespect). Earlier: Daniel Kasman and reviews from the Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York film festivals.

More interviews with Cronenberg: Peter Bowen (Filmmaker), Glenn Kenny, Jenni Miller (GQ) and Christopher Sweetapple (PopMatters). Interviews with Knightley: Kyle Buchanan (Vulture), Stuart Henderson (PopMatters) and Chris Kompanek (AV Club). And with Fassbender: Kyle Buchanan (New York), Glenn Kenny and Jeff Otto (Playlist). For PopMatters, Stuart Henderson talks with Mortensen and David Lee Dallas III meets screenwriter Christopher Hampton.

For Time, Wook Kim presents a list of "10 of cinema's most memorable psychiatrists and therapists." With clips.

Updates: "The rigor and repression on display here are hardly the quaint artifacts of a bygone social order, which we in the audience can congratulate ourselves on having left behind," writes AO Scott in the New York Times. "What we are witnessing, rather, is the raw, liberating and terrifying emergence of a distinctly modern way of understanding, and trying to assuage, some of the pain and intensity of being alive…. A Dangerous Method is full of ideas about sexuality — some quite provocative, even a century after their first articulation — but it also recognizes and communicates the erotic power of ideas. There are scenes of kinky activity between Sabina and Jung that will no doubt enjoy long life in specialized corners of the Internet, but the most unsettling aspect of A Dangerous Method may be the links it suggests between sex and thinking. The mind is both slave and master of the body's appetites, and the absurd and terrifying task of stabilizing that dynamic, in theory and in practice, is embraced equally by the film and the fragile, serious historical figures who inhabit it."

"In his third consecutive Cronenberg film (after playing the righteous killers of A History of Violence and Eastern Promises), Mortensen is a happy surprise," finds Time's Richard Corliss. "Never has this tightly-wound actor seemed so relaxed in a difficult role; he is the charming papa Jung hates to overthrow but knows he must. Fassbender, renowned in art-house circles as the imperiously romantic Rochester of Jane Eyre and the sexual vagabond of Shame, tamps down his usual steely sensuality to make flesh of the conflicts a principled man feels for a troubled Circe. At first, Knightley has trouble with her character's extremes and Russian accent; in the mad scene that opens the film, the viewer sees not through her into Sabina but rather the strenuous attempt of a pretty young actress to impersonate a lunatic saint. Later, as Sabina gains clarity and control, Knightley makes a lovely lover for Carl. If Sabina is a vampire, then she's Edward Cullen, the creature who knows too much, to his Bella Swan, naive but game for a toxic twilight romp."

"Any movement on the sequel to Eastern Promises?" New York's Kyle Buchanan asks Mortensen. The reply: "It's funny you should ask, because we've been talking a lot about that recently. It takes David a while to get his movies financed — except now, for the first time he's got back-to-back movies with Cosmopolis coming out next year, and we won't have to wait several years for another Cronenberg gem — but one of the projects he's considering is a sequel to Eastern Promises. Usually, sequels aren't as interesting as the original, and though there are exceptions like The Godfather Part II, if anyone could make a good sequel, it'd be David Cronenberg. There's a lot to explore with that character, and a script is being worked on for that, and it looks promising."

Keith Phipps at the AV Club: "Apart from a few heated moments — an argument here, a spanking scene there — A Dangerous Method keeps a measured, observational distance from its characters, all of whom are more comfortable communicating in sharply worded letters or knowing glances than face-to-face conversations. Even Fassbender and Knightley's behind-closed-doors moments have more than a hint of therapeutic language. The approach suits the subject, but proves dramatically frustrating, favoring hushed pops over fireworks. So does A Dangerous Method's elliptical storytelling: Fassbender and Mortensen fight over Jung's insistence on merging psychology and the supernatural, but the film offers few details, and lets key developments happen offscreen. In the end, Cronenberg is less interested in the history of psychoanalysis than in how the lives of its early proponents illustrated its limitations."

A Dangerous Method is "about the forceful invasion of minds (as was Scanners), and their rebuilding by those who presume to know better," writes Joshua Rothkopf in Time Out New York, where David Fear interviews Mortensen.

Updates, 11/23: "Mad passion in antiseptic Switzerland!" exclaims J Hoberman in the Voice:

Cronenberg sticks close to the historical record as documented by letters and journals, while offering his own interpretation of the facts. Given the specimens, much of the movie seems to unfold in a pristine petri dish. The protean Fassbender plays a proper Jung, steely yet agonized; Mortensen's self-amused, paranoid Freud is a more unusual piece of work. Mind ablaze, he sees repression everywhere. The mystical Jung believes that nothing happens by accident; for Freud, all accidents have meaning. If Jung's deceptive gentility is matched by the movie's hyper Masterpiece Theatre mise-en-scène — with near-constant "classical" music and crisp, gliding cinematography — it's Freud's startling connections that rhyme with Cronenberg's eruptive editing, cutting from Spielrein's bloody deflowering to the Jung family's new lakeside house, or from Freud scolding his anointed "son and heir" for straying from "the firm ground of sexual theory" to Jung gratifying Spielrein's desire with a vigorous spanking.

Caught between two geniuses, Spielrein is the movie's true subject. Toward the end, Freud congratulates her on her theories of sex and death instincts, which he here understands as the recognition that desire is an inherent threat to the individual ego. Then, sensing her unresolved attachment to the ultracivilized Jung, he warns her against putting her faith in Aryans. "We're Jews, Miss Spielrein, and Jews we will always be." Of course, Jung has some intimations of his own. As the movie ends, he dreams that Lake Geneva is filled with corpses and red with Europe's blood.


"[W]ith Shame, opening a week later, A Dangerous Method makes a fortuitous and unique double bill spotlighting Michael Fassbender's grimacing sexual exertions," writes the L's Mark Asch, "but though my colleague Henry Stewart points to Shame as a Catholic-guilt allegory, it's while whipping Knightley here that Fassbender most looks like he's flagellating himself. Cronenberg sometimes shoots these scenes in a mirror, reinforcing Sabina's thesis about sex in conflict with ego — the film generally takes her side against the cigars-and-brandy cabal. Still, it's Mortensen who walks away with it, nodding or grunting meaningfully as acolyte Jung compares him to Galileo or resists his one-upsmanship, his every gesture a miracle of sanguine efficiency."

"Hampton's credits (including his Oscar-winning Dangerous Liaisons, Atonement and the Michael Caine-starrer The Quiet American) are for the most part adaptations," notes Kenneth Turan, "and here he is working from both his own play on the subject (called The Talking Cure) and John Kerr's A Most Dangerous Method, a comprehensive history of this three-way relationship. If Hampton's literate script provides the essential language, Mortensen and Fassbender do such a splendid job of turning iconic figures such as Freud and Jung into compelling people that it is a shock to hear that others (Christoph Waltz for Freud, Christian Bale for Jung) almost got the parts."

Also in the Los Angeles Times, Rebecca Keegan interviews Cronenberg. Craig Hubert talks with Knightley for Interview. And Megan Ratner's spoken with Cronenberg for Film Quarterly.

Updates, 11/25: "It's a fiercely thoughtful film, a movie of ideas that understands how powerful ideas can be," writes Slate's Dana Stevens. "Fassbender does a beautiful job channeling his intensity into this repressed, at times priggish, but deeply passionate character. And Mortensen signals everything you need to know about Freud's skeptical, irreverent mind just by the jaunty way he perches in his desk chair to read. Sadly, Jung and Freud don't get a lot of quality time together onscreen. Most of the movie is devoted to Jung's anguished personal life, a storyline that suffers from the casting of Knightley as the brilliant but unstable Sabina…. I never really believed Sabina was a damaged genius capable of going toe-to-toe with her mentor; she just seemed like a pretty girl in love with her shrink."

"The script has two versions of why Jung and Freud fell out," notes Tom Shone, "one involving their principled difference of opinion on whether psychoanalysis should be allowed to touch upon matters of religion, mysticism and the like; and the second involving their principled difference of opinion over whether Jung should be allowed to paddle the ass of Knightley, which looks almost as much fun as beheading Orcs. You'll never guess which turns out to be the more compelling plot-line."

Jeff Otto talks with Cronenberg for the Playlist.

Updates, 11/26: A Dangerous Method presents, "you might say, the therapeutic model for the construction of female-madness dramas," suggests Terrence Rafferty in the NYT: "the patient as case study, the illness as a mystery to be solved. It's a satisfying form, in its way, and it also, not incidentally, embodies a pretty potent male fantasy: the therapist guides the beautiful, deranged woman to a breakthrough that allows her to resume her life, but without all the shocking words and ugly grimaces. He restores her feminine graces." And Rafferty talks us through many, many examples.

Today's interview with Cronenberg comes from Anne Thompson.

Update, 11/28: Miriam Bale talks with Cronenberg for Moving Image Source.

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