Friday, August 31, 2012

Director Spotlight #9.20: David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method


Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. August’s director is body horror auteur David Cronenberg.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 56 (B-)

It makes sense that David Cronenberg made a film like A Dangerous Method. The director has shown a strong interest in psychology throughout his filmography, so a film about the founders of psychoanalysis seems like a good fit for the director. Yet for all of it’s strengths, A Dangerous Method isn’t a very satisfying film, and easily one of the director’s weaker efforts.

Russian woman Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) is in complete hysteria. Her father sends the young woman to Zurich into the care of Swiss doctor Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). A follower of Freud, Jung uses Sigmund Freud’s concept of psychoanalysis to treat Spielrein and get to the heart of her ailment before encouraging her interest in psychoanalysis. Jung’s success brings him to the attention of Freud himself (Viggo Mortensen), who accepts Jung as the heir to his teachings. But the two differ in key matters- Freud believes psychoanalysis should be based purely in empirical data and focus on sexual matters, whereas Jung believes the libido is overemphasized in Freud’s work and that less empirical and more radical territory should be explored. Meanwhile, Jung embarks on a relationship with former patient Spielrein.

Cronenberg crafts a rather elegant chamber piece in what’s easily the talkiest film the director ever made. There’s little violence and only small bursts of sexual excitement between Fassbender and Knightley, but Cronenberg directs the film well by making good use of the actors’ faces while taking a typically detached and observational style. Cronenberg’s uses greater use of split-diopter and deep focus than usual, usually showing one actor in the foreground describing their psychological hangups while another actor stays in the background, quietly observing. It’s a rather smart touch from Cronenberg that plays to the theme of psychoanalysis- observation is key, so let’s keep the listener in mind while the subject takes the stage.

Cronenberg should just start putting Viggo Mortensen in all of his films at this point- he’s the De Niro or DiCaprio to Cronenberg’s Scorsese. The director originally had Christoph Waltz cast as Freud, and while Waltz would no doubt have killed it, it’s hard to imagine a more shrewd bit of casting than Mortensen as the magnetic, inflexible professional. Cold and detached, Freud is a man whose conviction and ego makes him unbending and often bullying to his younger colleague. He’s almost ridiculously preoccupied with sexuality and its relation to the mind, and it’s easy to see why Jung might be frustrated by him. Yet he’s not a total bastard- he’s a man whose lower class and Jewish ethnicity has limited how much people are willing to listen to him, and it’s easy to feel his every slight by high society.

Michael Fassbender has quickly established himself as one of the finest actors alive, and while his higher-profile work in last year’s Shame deservedly got more attention, he’s still quite good here as Jung. Jung’s privilege as an affluent Protestant makes his rise as the world’s leading psychoanalyst over Freud inevitable; he doesn’t even consider that Freud’s ethnicity and class might prevent him from higher standing. He’s a more speculative and less rigid person, but he also frequently comes off as a sanctimonious jerk who judges others for neuroses that he himself displays. Jung’s relationship with Spielman, while passionate, never truly breaks through his repression, until he loses control and is sent to the point of nervous breakdown.

Knightley has the trickiest role of the bunch, one that rubbed a number of critics the wrong way. But while Knightley’s initial fever pitch as a screaming, twitching, chin-jutting neurotic is certainly big, it doesn’t come off as a stunt but rather as a character whose neuroses manifest themselves in a unhinged physical fashion. Where Jung is fatally repressed, Spielman suffers from a total lack of restraint brought upon by a mixture of guilt and excitement from her own masochism. Granted, the manic timbre of the opening twenty minutes couldn’t possibly have sustained a feature film without becoming exhausting, but Knightey settles nicely into a forceful but more restrained version of Spielman after the first act, torn between her connection to Freud’s method (which cured her) and views and her love for Jung.

Here’s the problem with A Dangerous Method: this is not a film. Cronenberg opens up the material as much as he can, but after a while his use of deep focus looks like his only trick to make the film feel cinematic. A Dangerous Method betrays the old dictum of “show, don’t tell”: nearly the whole film is made up of characters talk-talk-talking about the nature of their hangups and psychology and so on and so forth. The scenes between Jung and a well-cast but wasted Vincent Cassel as Otto Gross are the film at its worst, as the two talk about whether it’s better to be repressed or unrestrained (hello, thesis!). It’s interesting, but there’s not much drama to it and very little momentum. It’s surprising that the film was originally based off of screenwriter Christopher Hampton’s play The Talking Cure, considering that little of this makes for gripping drama. If anything, it feels like the original book, John Kerr’s A Most Dangerous Method, was fruitlessly willed into a dramatic structure. It’s not a bad movie by any means- Cronenberg’s director and the actors’ performances make sure of that, and it maintains a certain level of intelligence. But intelligence isn’t always intriguing.

And with that, August’s Director Spotlight on David Cronenberg comes to a close. Hopefully Cosmopolis will expand beyond limited release sometime soon so I can give it a look, but for now, it’s time I move on. Here’s some superlatives:

Best to Worst:

1.     Dead Ringers (A)
2.     The Fly (A)
3.     Videodrome (A)
4.     A History of Violence (A)
5.     The Brood (A)
6.     Naked Lunch (A)
7.     Shivers (A-)
8.     The Dead Zone (A-)
9.     Crash (B+)
10. M. Butterfly (B+)
11. Scanners (B+)
12. Rabid (B+)
13. Eastern Promises (B+)
14. A Dangerous Method (B-)
15. Spider (C+)
16. Fast Company (C+)
17. eXistenZ (C)
18. Stereo (C)
19. Crimes of the Future (C-)
Best Actor: Jeremy Irons (Dead Ringers)
Runner-up: Jeff Goldblum (The Fly)

Best Actress: Geena Davis (The Fly)
Runner-up: Samantha Eggar (The Brood)

Best Supporting Actor: William Hurt (A History of Violence)
Runner-up: Oliver Reed (The Brood)

Best Supporting Actress: Genevieve Bujold (Dead Ringers)
Runner-up: Judy Davis (Naked Lunch)

Best Scene: “In the Still of the Night” (Dead Ringers)
Runner-up: “Long Live the New Flesh” (Videodrome)

With September comes the tenth edition of the Director Spotlight feature. For this, I wanted to look into the career of not just a great director, but a world-class cinephile. Starting tomorrow, look forward to Director Spotlight’s coverage of Francois Truffaut. And as a bonus, there will be a special edition of Director Spotlight on a modern cinephile whose new film is my most awaited of the year.

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