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Cronenberg’s Psychoanalytical Menage a Trois: A Dangerous Method

When people say, “This is not really a Cronenberg movie,” first of all I point out to them that the first movie I ever made, the first film I ever shot, was called Transfer. And it had two characters: a psychiatrist and his patient [laughs]. So if you go right back to my beginnings as a filmmaker, this was the first subject matter that I dealt with. — David Cronenberg in Filmmaker Magazine.

Seventy-six-year-old David Cronenberg has had quite a prolific and varied career. But despite still being labeled a director of horror, Cronenberg began to experiment away from specific genre fare in the 1990s before abandoning it completely in the 2000s, expanding on his oft-visited fascination with sexuality, addiction, obsession, and dysmorphic views of the body in more wide-ranging ways.

Some see the “change” in Cronenberg’s work with 2005’s A History of Violence, Cronenberg’s first of three consecutive films with Viggo Mortensen. A crime thriller, based on the graphic novel of the same name, History still had subversive enough ideas concerning sex and interior psychological warfare that it still felt Cronenberg, despite not being more explicitly horrific. The horror lied more in the mind and instead of symbolizing a radical change in the outside body, Cronenberg focused more on the dysmorphia of the brain and how someone can forcibly change their identity. Cronenberg didn’t necessarily change his approach, just the playing field.

Since then, Cronenberg hasn’t really looked into his past for inspiration, proceeding further into new territory with the gruesome Russian mob story Eastern Promises (2007, also with Mortensen) and with two biting satires, one of corporate America in Cosmopolis (2012), starring Robert Pattinson, and one of Hollywood decadence in Maps to the Stars (2014), also with Pattison and Julianne Moore.

It was in 2011 with A Dangerous Method, however, where Cronenberg got to tackle the source of all the analysis and criticism of his very symbolic work revolving around human desires and needs by tackling none other than Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud themselves. Fans of heads blowing up in Scanners, exploding fingertips in The Fly, and violent sexual organs in Rabid, might be taken aback by what appears to be a rather straight-forward period piece about psychoanalysis.

But for those who maybe scoffed at Cronenberg turning his back completely on his horror roots (and the film was a box office failure, so we know those people are out there), nothing could explain the oeuvre of Cronenberg himself, in any phase, more than A Dangerous Method. If anything, it thematically functions as a prequel to the man’s career, getting to the source of where we believe our dreams, nightmares, fetishes, and taboo thoughts, the essence of a Cronenberg film, horror or not, truly come from.

In what David Cronenberg calls “an intellectual menage a trois, A Dangerous Method details the rise and fall of the relationship between a youthful Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and the aging Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) as they approach the burgeoning field of psychoanalysis in proportionately different ways when it comes to the care and tutelage of a Russian woman suffering from hysteria named Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley).

Though Jung is initially open to utilizing Freud’s techniques, specifically dream analysis, his endeavors to experiment outside the accepted frames of reference Freud created when he helped found psychoanalysis leads to a simmering feud. While Freud remains entrenched in his view of sexuality, Jung looks to find different answers to the question of why. In the middle of it all is Sabina, a burgeoning physician herself, whose internal struggle with perceived sexual trauma, as well as a looked-down-upon affair with Jung himself, provides a touchpoint for both Jung and Freud’s initial friendship and their eventual collapse.

Viggo Mortensen as the increasingly detached Freud in David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method

Regardless of how well a Cronenberg film has been received on a whole, his ability to get sterling performances from already excellent actors is one of his greatest strengths as a director. A Dangerous Method is blessed with two of the finest actors of this generation (who also happen to be two of my top three favorite actors ever, currently) as Jung and Freud. If you went into this movie blind, knowing nothing about it, but I told you the leading actors would be Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender, I guarantee you’d have bought a ticket, sight unseen.

And that is not to discredit Keira Knightley either. After a surge of popularity with the Pirates of the Caribbean films, and a nice streak of prestige work with a fair amount of acting nominations from major award bodies, Knightley fell off the map a bit. But in A Dangerous Method, she gives what might be her greatest performance as Sabina, a woman whose ever-present guilt and shame cause literal physical contortion. With Knightley, Mortensen, and Fassbender, the acting on display in A Dangerous Method is a staggering embarrassment of riches.

In what on paper would seem to be a rather dry costume drama, Cronenberg gives the film the clinical coldness expected of him. As professional physicians, Freud and Jung speak about sex as statistics and as pure analysis, without a hint of eroticism or desire. Even when Jung and Sabina engage in sex acts themselves it is equally clinical, as Cronenberg describes: “they were their first subjects, after all. They were experimenting with themselves and that included every element, sexual and otherwise.”

Jung (Fassbender) examines Sabina (Knightley) in David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method

One prevalent image in a Cronenberg film is the cold, almost bleak, sexuality, be it Deborah Kara Unger needing to feel the neutral and cold chrome of a car’s hood on her chest as she has sex with her anonymous partner in Crash, Jeremy Iron’s Bev Mantle using surgical tools to tie up his lover in Dead Ringers, or Robert Pattinson’s emotionless sex in a limo, while having a fairly mundane discussion, in Cosmopolis, Cronenberg’s sexuality is always shown as primal and essential, not necessarily enjoyable.

A Dangerous Method is no different than any other Cronenberg film but it takes the symbolism of cold sexuality and makes it literally clinical. Sabina, whose sexual kinks revolve around her father slapping her as punishment when she was naked as a young girl, seeks release as an adult from the same practice. And while Jung obliges by whipping her and spanking her, the motive is not sadism or domination, or even his own pleasure…it is research.

Never have the Cronenberg trademarks been so literal and it is a testament to his direction, as well as the brilliant actors attached, that make this less visual work so appealing. The depictions of sex between Jung and Sabina are, as mentioned above, more instructional than erotic while Jung and Freud’s escalating feud never comes to anything physical; there is hardly even a raised voice. It is more the internal passion of the science of it all that drives the tension and only someone with as much control of his material as Cronenberg could make that kind of subtle, quiet, and dialogue-heavy drama work so well.

So, I suppose the point of this review is, in the end, to give this little-seen Cronenberg film a shot. While it might not raise the pulse in a manner equivalent to his more violent and physically abrasive films, such as Videodrome or eXistenZ, nor depict sex in the taboo-shaking way he did in Crash, A Dangerous Method not only honestly depicts a little-explored portion of history (Cronenberg himself thinks the trio of Jung, Freud, and Sabina “invented the 20th century” in regards to personal relationships) but it also provides a clue into what makes Cronenberg himself tick.

 


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Written by Will Johnson

Will is the author of the little read book Secure Immaturity: A Nostalgia-Crushing Journey Through Film. Seriously, I think only his mom read it. Will contributes articles to 25YL on horror films, pop culture, books and comics. Will loves his hometown Buccaneers, the MCU, and his two nerdy daughters. He lives in Phoenix, AZ, USA.

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