Cronenberg has spent much of his career delving into the darker depths of cinematic expression, from exploding heads to stomach vaginas, from typewriters talking out of their assholes to the fetishisation of car accidents. Over the decades, then, audiences have been conditioned as to what to expect from a Cronenberg film. What’s most interesting about this work is that while it does fit in with many of the themes that have been explored in previous films, themes often overshadowed by the more bombastic or brutal aspects of the story telling, A DANGEROUS METHOD is a far more straightforward, dare-I-say accessible work from this great director. The fact that it’s a film about hubris, sexual compulsion, betrayal and spanking makes it all the more amusing that this is what passes for a Cronenberg-for-the-masses piece.
The film deftly takes as it’s core narrative the complex relationship between Freud and his disciple Jung, and in turn their varied relationships with Sabina Spielrein. It’s Sabrina’s arc that provides the film its most explicit drive, relying upon the acting charms of Kiera Knightley to tie the work together. For some this will be a stretch, her initial, broad lunatic ravings giving way to her nascent sexual awakening and final role in the development of psychoanalytical theory will be too hard to accept. It’s no small irony that the same baggage that will prevent some from accepting Kiera in this role, weird Russian accent and all, will equally have a hard time stomaching Cronenberg’s hand in the proceedings. Divorced from as much preconception as possible, the subtlety and breadth of her performance is indeed laudible.
There are no reservations for Mortensson and Fassbender, who play off each other marvelously. This really is Fassbender’s film, his taught face giving the flickering hints of the broiling passions that underlay his behaviours. Viggo’s Freud is also a wonderful character, articulate and charming, with a great deal of wit that belies the often austere portrait of the thinker. Sarah Gadon’s role as Jung’s passive/weathy wife is perhaps the least drawn out, but she makes the most most of what she’s given, a pretty blonde foil to Knightley’s darker looks. Yet it is Vincent Cassel that almost manages to steal the entire movie – whisked in and out midway through, his equally epic and repulsive portrayal of a man named Gross makes for a delicious irony.
Based in part on a play, the film never feels claustrophobic or overly talky. Complex ideas aren’t shied away from (from subversion of the Ego to the notion of Thanatos), nor are there shortcuts in characterization to make easy distinctions between good and evil. This is an unapologetically intellectual film, yet at its core its also extremely tied to a underpinning of sexuality, repression, oedipal cravings, etc. In other words, this is a film structured to cohere strongly to the psychoanalytic narrative, yet does so with such grace and dexterity that it doesn’t feel trite or condescending of its worth as a narrative film.
A DANGEROUS METHOD may not be the greatest of Cronberg’s works, but it’s so assured, almost casual in its abilities that it may well be his most mature. It’s both smart and beautiful to watch, and deserves close analysis by a wide audience.