A Dangerous Method
Director: David Cronenberg
THE transition from analogue (i.e. celluloid) to digital is perhaps the major issue affecting all areas of cinema right now, and it’s proving an awkward one for many – audiences, film-makers, and movie-business folk alike. Last week saw the UK release of Martha Marcy May Marlene, an American film which was made on film but which is largely being projected over here digitally – with often unappetisingly murky results. It’s hard to imagine that MMMM director Sean Durkin and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes being very pleased about this state of affairs, but the decision is evidently a commercial one on the part of the British distributors (and exhibitors) over which they likely have no influence.
Given the way things are going, it’s more than probable that Durkin’s next film will be shot on digital – and there are plenty of examples of major directors exploring the aesthetic possibilities of this new medium, with the perpetually tech-savvy Michael Mann among the most notable pioneers. Mann has deployed digital’s chilly crispness to conjure the nocturnal LA noir of Collateral, Miami’s sickly, acid-neon glow in Miami Vice, and, somewhat less successfully, the asphalt grit of Prohibition-era Chicago in Public Enemies.
But early-adopter Mann is very much the exception – many more ‘name’ directors, having learned and perfected their craft via 35mm, are finding that digital presents a steep learning-curve. And it may well be that the analogue/digital upheaval ends up truncating as many behind-the-camera careers as the 1920s silent-to-sound step-change did to those, like The Artist‘s hapless George Valentin, who made their living in front of it.
David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method is a case in point – the 69-year-old Canadian’s digital debut is by some way one of the less-distinguished additions to what has been one of the most remarkable of all directorial careers. Responsible for truly outstanding work in four different decades – The Brood in the 70s, The Dead Zone and The Fly in the 80s, eXistenZ in the 90s and, perhaps his single greatest achievement, A History of Violence in 2005 – Cronenberg was stymied by Steven Knight’s ropey script for London-set gangland-thriller Eastern Promises (2007) and once again struggles to overcome screenplay deficiencies here.
Christopher Hampton adapts his own 2002 play The Talking Cure – itself based on John Kerr’s 1993 non-fiction book A Most Dangerous Method – which chronicles the dawn of psychoanalysis in the early years of the 20th century. The focus, unsurprisingly, is on Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his sometime mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen, in his third consecutive Cronenberg collaboration after A History of Violence and Eastern Promises).
But Hampton’s “angle” is to dramatise their relationship by concentrating on a third, much less well-known figure, the mentally unstable Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). She’s a patient of Jung’s, but as he tries out various new experimental approaches their bond becomes rather more physical and emotional than usually exists between analyst and analysand – to the dismay of Freud, hastening the crucial breach between these twin pillars of modern psychiatry.
Always an articulate and piercingly intelligent commentator on his own work, Cronenberg has on several occasions invoked Freud when discussing his work, specifically the idea that ‘civilisation’ must always involve some degree of ‘repression’ – especially in relation to artistic impulses. And when Spielrein – as part of the “talking” cure – describes in icky detail her night-time delusions, the imagery is heavily redolent of classic ‘Cronenbergian’ body-horror: “there’s something in the room… like a cat, only it can speak. It gets into bed with me. Last night… I felt it against my back, something slimy like – like some kind of mollusc, moving against my back.”
Admirers of Cronenberg’s effects-heavy extravaganzas such as Rabid and Scanners will be disappointed if they approach A Dangerous Method expecting such horrors to be visualised. Instead, Cronenberg and Hampton deliver a cerebral, intellectual and dialogue-heavy affair which feels very much like an exercise in deliberate ‘repression’ – as if Cronenberg, so long a cult favourite, is now operating on ‘best behaviour’ with an eye on those who can’t accept that genre fare can deal with serious issues.
But Hampton’s material in no way plays to Cronenberg’s strengths – bold visual metaphors for psychological and emotional problems, rather than presenting these issues in such a direct, front-and-centre way: A Dangerous Method is thus more a companion-piece to Cronenberg’s Spider (2002), a journey around various cul-de-sacs in one damaged brain, than it is to Dead Ringers (1988), a much more effectively discomforting male/female ‘triangle’ of repression and sublimation.
And, as even Mann has found, it’s hard to summon convincing period atmosphere using digital photography – A Dangerous Method‘s flat look adds to its stagey feel, likewise Knightley’s audition-piece performance (Spielrein’s turmoil is expressed through a frenzied jaw-jutting tic that looks like something from a Francis Bacon crucifixion study.) Fassbender, meanwhile, plays it arrow-straight as Jung – the ‘straight man’ to Mortensen’s amusing, quietly bemused Freud.
All are comprehensively upstaged, however, by Vincent Cassel as Otto Gross, a wildly unorthodox psychiatrist (“watch out for him – he bites!”) who makes by far the biggest impact despite his regrettably truncated screen-time – a gleefully id-embracing, Serge Gainsbourg-like priapic provocateur (motto: “never repress anything”) for whom, clearly, every day is satyr-day.
1st February, 2012
written for Tribune magazine