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Freud-Jung rivalry gets Cronenberg treatment

Freud-Jung rivalry gets Cronenberg treatment

By Philip Martin

This article was published January 27, 2012 at 4:06 a.m.

sigmund-freud-viggo-mortensen-and-carl-jung-michael-fassbender-discuss-the-mad-onrush-of-modernism-in-the-brand-new-20th-century-in-david-cronenbergs-cool-and-elegant-historical-drama-a-dangerous-method

Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) discuss the mad onrush of modernism in the brand new 20th century in David Cronenberg’s cool and elegant historical drama A Dangerous Method.

— A Dangerous Method 87

Cast

: Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortensen, Keira Knightley, Sarah Gadon, Vincent Cassel

Director

: David Cronenberg

Rating

: R, for sexual content and language

Running time

: 99 minutes

Despite its investigation of psychosexual issues, including body invasion and reinvention of the self (and, in this case, the invention of the 20th century), A Dangerous Method is hardly a typical David Cronenberg film.

Instead, the Canadian director continues his intriguing retreat away from authorial imprimatur and toward the sort of invisible authority one associates with Old Hollywood professionals such as Robert Wise or WilliamWyler (or contemporary craftsmen Clint Eastwood and Steven Soderbergh). Since 2005’s A History of Violence, Cronenberg seems to have deliberately set out to distance himself from his established image as the foremost practitioner of so-called “venereal horror.” (He was even set to direct a Tom Cruise action movie, The Matarese Circle, when the project was derailed by MGM’s bankruptcy.)

A Dangerous Method is a coolly formal period piece about the invention of psychotherapy and the rivalry between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). And while the film’s subject matter mightseem tailor-made for Cronenberg, the auteur seems to have completely wiped his fingerprints from the crime (mise-en-)scene. Camera movements are restrained and deliberate; the actors appear outwardly calm and refined as their minds reel and rebel against convention.

Cronenberg’s comments are largely constrained to the subtle placement of his actors in the frame, to suggest the ever shifting power dynamic between the characters, who form a kind of love triangle. If you didn’t know better, you might mistake A Dangerous Method for a lost Merchant-Ivory production.

And, to be completely honest, that’s a minor problem - despite its rather sensational material, A Dangerous Method feels a bit static, particularly in its opening moments. When I first started watching it, a couple of months ago, I made it through only the first 45 minutes or so before deciding I’d seen enough for endof-the-year voting purposes. When I came back to it a few weeks later, my reaction was a little different, but I realize most moviegoers don’t have the luxury of taking a second look at a movie. So come prepared.

Adapted from Christopher Hampton’s 2002 play The Talking Cure (which itself was based on psychologist and historian John Kerr’s 1993 book A Most Dangerous Method, which relied heavily on letters that flew between the principals), the film begins in 1904 with the arrival of a new patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), at Jung’s Zurich clinic.

Sabina is hysterical, desperately so, but using Freud’s theories and methods (then in beta development), Jung is able to make progress, eventually calming her and unleashing her formidable intellect. And as Sabina heals, she unconsciously redirects her emotions to her therapist (the phenomenon commonly known as “transference”), which Jung takes full advantage of, despite his evident love for his wife, Emma (Sarah Gadon).

Later, Sabina becomes Freud’s patient (and pupil), is horrified by the violation, and he uses the affair in his ideological war against Jungian “mysticism.”

If you know much about the birth of psychoanalysis, you probably already knowthe broad outlines of the film, or at least what becomes of Sabina.

If not, you should be prepared for an artfully repressed experience in which the ultra-civilized conversations between Jung and Freud count as highlights. One might be forgiven for expecting something different, but A Dangerous Method has a keen edge, and the performances by Fassbender andespecially Mortensen (whose Freud is wickedly funny) are as precise as they are deliberate.

Unfortunately, the film’s first act is marred by some violent mugging by the otherwise fine Knightley, who seems less a hysteric than a demon-possessed refugee from some B-horror flick. (Her performance here is reminiscent of Jennifer Carpenter’s contortionist turn in The Exorcism of Emily Rose.)

I’ve read that she worked hard on making Sabina’s jaw-jutting and spittle-flinging true to her mental state , and that she consulted with Cronenberg, who endorsed her method here. But sometimes effective acting requires underplaying authentic mannerisms. Art at times requires the dethronement of realism.

It’s ironic, given the way the drama plays out, that Knightley’s choice to go with Freudian scientific observation over Jungian instinct nearly undoes this fine film.

MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 01/27/2012

Print Headline: Method acting

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