A Dangerous Method (2011)

14 March 2012

MP here

David Cronenberg, North America's finest director, came to prominence in the 1970s with such a singular style of filmmaking that, at some point long after a string of masterpieces throughout the '80s, the followers who elected him the head of their cult - obviously knowing his interests and strengths better than he does - were inevitably going to suffer feelings resembling betrayal. As a result, with his last three films in particular, hardcore fans have bent over backwards to either deride his apparent defection to what they perceive to be the mainstream or forge links to his earlier golden age by way of clever, insistent auteurism.

Does it matter who directed this film? Well, no and yes. No because going into it expecting a revival of "body horror" - a term Cronenberg had imposed upon him by others - will likely be put off by its talky script and most subtle character development. Yes because, knowing this is from the storyteller who had Jeff Goldblum open The Fly 25 or so years ago with a single line of dialogue that propelled the remainder of the narrative to its genuinely heartbreaking conclusion, allows you to take pleasure once more in the no-nonsense rapidity with which the director gets on with things.

Opening confidently with the unnerving scenes of Keira Knightley's Sabina Spielrein being brought into the psychoanalytic custody of Michael Fassbender's Carl Jung, A Dangerous Method - for all its characters' self-analyses and talking cures - is non-stop narrative progression from beginning to end, presenting new information about its ever-changing, never simple relationships at every opportunity.

Yes, Chris Hampton's screenplay (adapted from his own play The Talking Cure, based in turn on John Kerr's book A Most Dangerous Method) is dialogue-heavy, but also beautifully acted, and it's Cronenberg's finest film to look at in years - in itself, Peter Suschitzky's cinematography, bathing the drama in a conflict of clinical white, romantic pink, deep purple and the stylised orange of flesh, is engrossing enough to intrigue from the off, particularly in the striking tilt-focus two-shots between Fassbender's enthralled analyst and Spielrein's tormented patient. Add to this Howard Shore's reliably memorable score and you're onto a winner, right?

Well, like everything else, that depends. Somewhere suitably repressed in all this is a tainted love story that's barely or explicitly developed before its fallout is suddenly upon us, with Knightley crying after doing the sensible thing and parting ways with her lover and teacher before their whole damned scandal repeats itself. In this sense, there are vague echoes of Malick's 2005 masterpiece The New World, whose complex love triangle unfolded increasingly with its head, ruling against the romanticism of the imagery; here, the "third wheel" is Jung's wife Emma (Sarah Gadon), who is momentarily cast aside in favour of Spielrein's baser or more deeply electric pleasures, before she rallies with economic and social power to reclaim her husband like the prerogative he is.

If this is your thing - it certainly is mine, though it never took the form I expected - then the film is an intelligent and multi-layered treat, incorporating delightfully nuanced asides, such as Freud's growing estrangement from Jung, owing as much to his embarrassed recognition of their class differences as to a professional disagreement on scientific method. If it isn't your thing, you might struggle to come to terms with it as the latest entry from a director known for less ostensibly safe terrain.

And the film is not without its weaknesses. As the strongest thing about Cronenberg's last three films, Viggo Mortensen could have done with more screen time; without it, the character of Freud remains only a means by which Spielrein can transcend Jung as a psychoanalyst. Perhaps inevitably for a work of speculative fiction, the dialogue between Freud and Jung seems to be as open an invitation to sniggers as do Knightley's wavering accent or Vincent Cassel's mid-act cameo as the id made flesh. (It should be said, though, that Knightley's performance is brilliant, and that her accent is nothing new to English-language versions of non-English characters.)

If Cronenberg's latest film already seems more dated than the stuff he was making 15 to 25 years ago, it's because it seems to lack their eternal provocation, something that might still allow even fans to overlook the more hokey elements of masterpieces such as Videodrome (1983) or Crash (1996). As weird and wonderful as those and some of his other films are, they flirt openly with silliness even when their more concrete ideas keep them philosophically anchored.

By default, then, A Dangerous Method's subject matter ties it to a reality and history half-familiar enough to facilitate damning judgement. But the majority of criticisms I've read are along the tired lines of fanboy dissatisfaction: the historical and psychological questions, perhaps alien to these people, don't get a look in.

But the film's fault isn't that David Cronenberg directed it - indeed, it's an immeasurably stronger work because of his direction - it's that Hampton's script only ever settles for an overview of a period and the relationships unfolding within it. This makes for a fast, economical and rewarding fiction when it could have been a lengthier, more lasting investigation. As it is, the dangerousness referred to in the film's title seems a reflection not of serious scientific enquiry in a social and historical moment quite hostile to it, but merely of sleeping with one's patient.