Cronenberg's 'A Dangerous Method': A Different Kind of Horror
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Despite its period trappings, its literary pedigree, and the Historical Importance of its fact-based (and, according to the filmmakers, meticulously researched) source materials, "A Dangerous Method" is as much a monster movie as anything its director, David Cronenberg, has ever had a hand in. And he's had his hand in some doozies, including "Videodrome," in which one man's voyeurism mutates him into a living recorder/playback machine; "The Brood," in which killer children are a physical manifestation of a disturbed woman's rage; and "Rabid," in which a woman's experimental skin graft turns her into a near-insatiable vampire with a retractable spearing-and-sucking mechanism.
"I'm vile, and I should be put away forever," spits the brilliant and fetching but deeply disturbed Sabina Spielren (Keira Knightley) early on in this film, written by Christopher Hampton from his play "The Talking Cure," which was in turn suggested by the book "A Most Dangerous Method" by John Kerr. Her self-condemnation stems from the self-disgust she feels after admitting to her doctor, one Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), how she became sexually aroused by being spanked by her father. Jung, married into wealth and practicing at a tony Swiss clinic in the early years of the 20th century, is experimenting with what he calls the "talking cure," in which patients suffering from such maladies then known as "hysteria" or some such thing, speak their histories, describe their symptoms, to an impassive interlocutor. This is the beginning of what became known as psychoanalysis, and of course Jung is in correspondence with Vienna's Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). The film not only depicts Sabina's "cure," but also the alliance, friendship, and eventual estrangement of Jung and Freud. Oh, and also Jung's tormented sexual/romantic affair with the woman.
The monster here, as in "Rabid," is a form of female sexuality that can't be tamed, or, more importantly to this scenario, can't be assimilated into European or world culture as it was then constituted. The unruliness of Sabina's malady is given full force in Knightley's performance, which has been dividing critics since the film made the festival circuit in the fall of this year. Knightley leans forward, juts her jaw, grits her teeth, makes spasmodic arm and hand movements that may suggest to some John Belushi's Joe Cocker impersonation. It's an insistently disruptive performance, and it's meant to be, and I think it works beautifully, and that Knightley's to be commended for pushing it to the extremes she does. Fassbender is wonderfully intelligent and subtly troubled as Jung; here, as in "Shame," coming out soon, he is almost miraculously gifted at conveying thought. Mortensen trades in his trademark smoldering charisma for a more eminent form of command. Also noteworthy is Vincent Cassel as a reprobate doctor who delivers the film's most tersely resonant line when he's chastised concerning the potential consequences of his actions: "Freedom is freedom."
Indeed, and "Method" explores that idea in typically insinuating Cronenbergian fashion, as well as laying out how its protagonists invented the language we use when we talk about, well, almost everything, but in particular for these purposes the themes of Cronenberg's earlier films. The film also reminds us that notions/metaphors of "otherness" are more than interesting academic fancies, as when Freud reminds Sabina not to forget that the both of them are Jews; and this bit of advice has a hideous resonance at the film's end, in which we are informed of the real-life fates of both those personages.
Throughout the film Cronenberg both works with his incredibly handsome production and costume design and also subverts it. Fassbender's Jung is a ruddy-cheeked Aryan, Mortensen's Freud mostly a hearty grey authority, and Sabina is a ravishing sepia smudge, a study in dun and talcum white. The shadows beneath her eyes are vampirish, or even, let's say, vampish; the film does begin in 1904, just as the cinematic codification of the feminine is beginning. A voyeuristic note is struck in that nearly all of the film's sex scenes are in fact scenes within scenes, shot as seen in mirrors in Sabina's room. Some critics have complained that this is a tamer version of the Cronenbergian vision; I not only beg to differ, but I insist that the harder you look at it, the wilder, and more disturbing, and more moving, it becomes.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.