Performances Make and Break A Dangerous Method
By Kristin Battestella
I was quite keen to see director David Cronenberg’s 2011 psychoanalysis opus starring Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud and Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung. Unfortunately, the all-star cast of A Dangerous Method both helps and hinders the period psychology panache here.
Disturbed patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly) is brought to Burgholzli Hospital under Dr. Carl Jung’s (Michael Fassbender) ‘talking cure’ treatment. As Jung discusses his theories on psychology with his wife Emma (Sarah Gabon), Sabina improves enough to help him in his studies- for she wishes to become a doctor herself. Jung corresponds with and eventually meets Dr. Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) who also encourages Jung to both treat and learn from the committed Dr. Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel). The radical Gross opens Jung up to new possibilities in philosophy and patient care, and the growing attractions between Jung and Sabina will have long-term affects on both their personal lives and the future of psychoanalysis.
Cronenberg (Shivers, The Fly, Spider) jumps right into the mental juiciness with lots of dialogue stemming from writer Christopher Hampton’s (Dangerous Liaisons, Atonement) The Talking Cure play, which is itself based upon John Kerr’s A Dangerous Method book. This focus on conversation may seem disinteresting, but the speech and banter is quick and well paced. A lot is said in the frank conversation on top and unsaid in the hidden subtext beneath, too. The photography matches this inward out examination as well, with intimate filming, full and tight close ups, and quick editing. We don’t have much time to stop or get bored in the stream of consciousness in media res flow. Although some of the split screen visuals are slightly imperfect- lens blurs linger in the background when alternating focus- it is critical to the players and the plot to see both doctor and patient in one camera shot as the ‘talking cure’ takes place. I can see why some audiences might find purely dialogue based storytelling unusual, old-fashioned, or slow. However, I don’t see the hindrance in A Dangerous Method. The fast moving debates, saucy conversations, and action within the frame via the players, camera cuts, and steady zooms perhaps move too fast in some frames. Onscreen times and places appear sporadically, and years seem to pass from scene to scene- Sabina’s treatment and Jung’s correspondences with Freud appear to happen overnight. Intercutting pregnancies pass and children and grow up in minutes, and these time changes may certainly be confusing on the first viewing.
Of course, all this mature, naughty talk is meant for a comfortable and intelligent audience, so I’m not surprised A Dangerous Method didn’t fair well in stateside cinemas or awards voting. This unfortunately creates an uphill battle for the film. We know where its players are going; even if the viewer follows the ‘journey not the destination’ design, it’s still somewhat obvious in the approach. For such a heavy subject matter- doctors on the fringe of science building the foundation of minds based on dreams and sex with patients!- A Dangerous Method should have been darker somehow. Step it up, raise the ante. Instead, the ninety-minute picture feels too short and lightweight, merely a quick gander into these people’s lives. These are critical moments for all the characters involved, but it isn’t really entertaining to watch relationships fall apart. Honestly, it becomes kind of dry. After all, we only have four people going round and round- things will get either hairy or dull, and A Dangerous Method seems to take the easy way out. This is a damn decent case study, yes, with more going on then can be found in one viewing. Spiritual comparisons, religion, medical ideologies, id, ego, mind versus self, battles of the sexes, marital life- perhaps it is all too involved and complicated for this precious generic 18 to 34 demographic. Yet A Dangerous Method feels too watered down in an attempt to chase this basic audience when it could have been bigger, better, and completely worthy of itself.
Sure, the too tame or talks too much styles may not work for all viewers, but the major problem with A Dangerous Method is unfortunately it’s would be female star Keira Knightly. I confess I’m already not so beholden of Knightly (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice), and she is very annoying to start here. Whether it was her design or Cronenberg encouraged it, that jaw thing is too dang weird! Rather than gaining sympathy for the abused and sick Sabina, the over the top ticks take the audience completely out of the picture. One wonders if Knightly can just do that jut jaw any old time or if she discovered her face can do wacky things only recently. Her accent wavers, yes, but the voice is not nearly as distracting as the contortionist introduction. Forgive me, but I couldn’t help but think, “Dr. Jung becomes attracted to this?” Why does Sabina only flip out when Jung isn’t around anyway? Sabina seems too childish early on, but Knightly does improve once she has something more constructive to do. Again, you expect more complexity, energy, abandonment even. For such sexual topics, I find it weird there’s essentially no nudity from Knightly. It is as if she’s going out of her way to keep it clean rather than be willing to throw her whole self into the character without reservations. There are two nip slips for fans, but there isn’t any scandal or achievement to put the viewer on Sabina’s side. She starts dirty and unkempt, slowly graduating into Edwardian grace and sophisticated debates, but this isn’t Knightly’s best. She never fully embraces Sabina and makes it tough to root for her. So, there’s nothing wrong with a doctor/patient affair? But writing exposing blackmail letters is okay? Sabina comes off as a scorned jealous bitch- yet she initiated the naughty offerings and comes to Jung later with her dissertation. Knightly’s scenes go round about Freud and Jung’s debates, and it leaves the audience wondering what the point of it all was. Were there any answers? In the end, did anything so life shattering happen? The flipside is that this is life. We divide, rectify. It’s dirty, messy, conflicted with imperfect people and no easy answers. I don’t mean to be so harsh, but Knightly is definitely off the mark and her scenes make A Dangerous Method un-entertaining enough to change the channel. Saying ‘Fraulein Spielrein,’ however, is very bemusing!
Fortunately, the male cast makes A Dangerous Method worthwhile. Michael Fassbender (Shame, X-Men: First Class, Prometheus) presents a cool voice with great German touches and international style for Carl Jung. It’s a nice mix of old fashioned proper- the accent seems strict and buttoned up despite the casual and pleasant psychologist’s demeanor. Of course, the boundaries between doctor and patient become a little too casual for currently hot stuff Fassbender, but the quaint glasses and tight mustache transform him from it boy status to an old last century intellectual. Fassbender hasn’t made many contemporary-set pictures, probably because he is one of a very talented few today who don’t just look like a modern actor pretending to be old school. He physically seeps into being Jung seamlessly with a cane, hat, and finite mannerisms. Unlike Knightly- who in comparison seems a tame, non-entity- it is very easy to buy into Fassbender’s young, friendly doctor. Perhaps Jung doesn’t know what he’s doing to start- he loves to eat and talk about sex. He’s pent up no doubt, even small and dorky complete with a milk mustache! However, Jung is charming, bemusing, and there is an idea, a mission and passion he must explore. More and more weighs upon his mind, body, and soul, and Jung becomes very serious as the picture unfolds. Ironically, these conflicts open him up more to the taboo experiences. We know there is something nasty going on even when A Dangerous Method keeps up the Edwardian behind closed doors sensibilities, and Fassbender is damn good in this within/without portrayal of Jung. Placed in tandem with his other recent performances as the brooding Rochester in Jane Eyre, the powerful young Magneto, and of course an extreme and exposed sex addict in Shame, and one further sees how well Fassbender plays the tables turned restraint. The glasses come off, Jung makes mistakes, he denies, admits, lives.
Viggo Mortenson (Lord of the Rings, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises with Cronenberg) is of course classic and witty wonderful. Freud’s cigar, the posture and dialect- Mortensen looks obviously Viggo whilst also being perfectly in character as Freud. There’s something transparent yet wise; Freud almost sees through Jung from the start, and hints of resentment over Jung’s married wealth and social and religious positions add unspoken dimension. The stuffed up debates between the doctors are the highlight of the picture- great verbal smack downs carrying psychological weight delivered with an effortless post-Victorian strike on the cheek or drop of the glove. Angry letters are a ‘violent break’ to these people! Thanks to Knightly’s not coming to play, the Freud versus Jung element here is far more interesting than Sabina’s story. Finding the balance between self and ideas, the father figures building up and giving way to sons, those sons breaking away against authority- these intriguing larger debates hinted upon by Freud are never fully explored in A Dangerous Method at the expense of the pseudo love triangle with Sabina. However, I would love, love to see Viggo in a picture dedicated entirely to him as Freud. His too brief, underutilized angel on Jung’s shoulder is the perfect support to Vincent Cassel’s devil as Otto Gross. I want to say Cassel (Black Swan) is a riot as the scandalous free loving doctor! Gross is dressed down for the period, almost a city bum in comparison to the sophisticated style of others onscreen. It would be visually obvious except for Cassel’s lovely, unapologetic embodiment of such of the time radical and wild notions. Oh, the shock of people who regularly discuss sex and talk of mistresses! Gross is supposed to be disturbed and himself institutionalized, but he gives Jung the educational push he needs to pursue his ideas. Again, another fine supporting player shortchanged in A Dangerous Method.
Where disappoint in Knightly can create a detrimental viewing experience, Sara Gadon (Cosmopolis) is pleasantly surprising as Emma Jung. The rich and often pregnant wife of our conflicted doctor is pleasing and classy, a proper warm and supportive old-fashioned lady who stands in for the would-be rigid societal yoke entrapping Jung. It isn’t a thankless or completely ‘stand by your man’ role, however. Gadon handles the performance well, but the marriage is meant to be forced, old school, strained, distant and one sided. Thanks to the honestly and somewhat overlooked focus for Emma, it’s easy to like her and feel for this woman who is obviously not a priority to her husband. The poor thing spends most of A Dangerous Method faux- pregnant yet still looks gloriously done up in the finest early 20th century hats and white lace. Again, it is a little too symbolic of her purity, goodness, and high collar stoic wealth. But it’s visually smashing fashion and we need to see these Freudian representations and choices. Emma’s one scene with Sabina is also onscreen awkward perfection. Mrs. Jung is quiet and classy while Sabina still comes off as unstable and intrusive. Is one stifling and the other freeing? One maternal and submissive, the other masculine and dominant? With the one sided focus on Sabina and only one reference to Jung’s long time mistress Toni Wolff, these female gives and takes are never fully explored.
Even when the saucy talk would have viewers think A Dangerous Method exposes the naughty of a such a pretty time, the look and style is too lovely! Again, the costumes handle a lot of the symbolism needed for the players, but that visual dimension does so much. The music is also wonderful, both contemporary edgy scoring from Howard Shore and the onscreen Wagner allusions and Siegfried references. The blend and inspiration of the two is internally foreboding yet done in pleasant of the time arrangements. And of course, the fun phonographs, turn of the century accessories, and scientific gizmos create a sweet attention to detail- the carriages, cars, canes, hats, spats! Old World Austria locations are also divine, with lovely architecture and great boating and water scenery. I must also say the pretty penmanship and letter writing campaigns are also so classy. Good cursive is a foreign language to youth today! Though the rental blu-ray is filled with commercials and preview crap as always, the photography looks delightful. The disc skipped a few times, too, and the older design black blocked subtitles were a bit weird, but the menus were quite easy to navigate. It seems it should go without saying that an interface actually works, but the old-fashioned scrolling simplicity does much compared to all the BD Live mumbo jumbo access most discs have these days. The commentary and half hour AFI Master Seminar with Cronenberg were very deep and involved, but the behind the scenes videos seemed too quick for the topics at hand. Biographies or Freudian versus Jungian debate and analysis panels might have been nice.
Of course, there are a few juicy scenes in A Dangerous Method, naturally, and one particularly good naughty from Cassel definitely places this one in the ‘not for kids’ category. However, for all the repeated bumping and grinding trailer and highly publicized spanking themes between Knightly and Fassbender, A Dangerous Method is actually fairly subdued and mostly fully clothed. What you see in the trailer is pretty much what you get. It might have been easy to take the sex romp, tawdry melodrama road, but the witty touches of Cronenberg’s dry humor keep this film more high brow. Indeed, A Dangerous Method is simply a saucy play onscreen, and strangely, I find it quite pleasing just to listen to it. All this deep dream and sex talk and yet the elegant voice and style feels like a mellow Sunday afternoon stroll! Some audiences may definitely find fault with the dialogue based performances or uneven character pace and focus, yes. Fans of Cronenberg’s more creepy work and horror films might be reluctant in watching A Dangerous Method, understandably. However, his cerebral panache is here for smart, mature viewers and psychologists or older students of Freud and Jung. Fans of the cast can dive in as well with history buffs or period piece lovers, too. So long as you aren’t too prudish over the sexual subtext and allow room for a few performance faults, A Dangerous Method is an intriguing little film conversation.