There’s a scene not long into David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method that’s something of a cerebral cocktease. Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) is describing a dream to her psychoanalyst, Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). She details a giant cat-like creature crawling into bed behind her, not long before she begins to feel a wet, slithering mollusk slapping and wiggling against her lower back. The description sends the senses into epileptic fits, scurrying wildly into the most hidden and corroded psychosexual crawlspaces. And had the Cronenberg of The Fly, Videodrome, Dead Ringers, and The Brood been behind the camera, we might have seen this grand, grotesque, sensual beast, courtesy of Rick Baker. A Dangerous Method, however, signals an unexpected, brave, and astonishingly successful shift in Cronenberg’s style, though his sophisticated yet intensely physical abilities as a filmmaker remain very nearly unparalleled.
One could say that we saw the initial notes of this oddly romantic period piece in Cronenberg’s adaptation of M. Butterfly (that rarest of things, a Cronenberg mediocrity), but if so, it served largely as the director’s first toe dip in the ice-cold waters of stage-to-screen adaptations. The settings of Christopher Hampton’s The Talking Cure, the play A Dangerous Method is adapted from, remain almost entirely the same in the film, but Cronenberg, working with his regular, brilliant DP, Peter Suschitzky, gives the conversations between Spielrein, Jung, and their mutual father figure, Sigmund Freud (the great Viggo Mortensen), a rousing energy that sheds the rigid theatricality that often comes with relocating a script from the density of imagination spurred from the wooden floorboards of the stage to the impossible, endless visual spaces of the cinema.
Steeped though it is in the most cerebral and relevant of matters, A Dangerous Method, adapted by Hampton as well, is essentially classical in structure. The plot moves forward and escalates in ways that call to mind a dozen or so tested story elements (the love triangle, the competitive intellectuals, the forbidden lust, the underdog), but the film’s familiarity gets fractured like blinding sunshine through a kaleidoscope by the gargantuan contemplations of sex, psychology, religion, history, and violence that spin out of Hampton’s excellent script. One can see the signposts of rote rigidity when Hampton and Cronenberg parallel Jung’s fiery affair with Spielrein to his proper marriage to an intensely docile and wealthy Swiss woman, Emma (Sarah Gadon), but the sheer thickness and complexity of the film’s thematic payload augments the trajectory of the story, or at the very least serves as expert distraction.
The weight of the film’s historical accuracy—Cronenberg and his design team present evocative, completely persuasive settings—certainly has a lot to do with how tremendously fascinating the picture is, but A Dangerous Method is also a decisive act of interwoven storytelling. Indeed, Emma Jung’s interest in psychoanalysis—she eventually became a practicing, successful psychoanalyst in her own right—is barely hinted at and, though palpable, the issue of Judaism is remarked upon only a handful of times. These omissions and restrained invocations, however, allow for a stronger sense of furious discord between Jung and Freud, who uses Otto Grossman (a spectacular Vincent Cassel) as, in Cassel’s words, a bomb to be detonated in Jung’s sexually tepid though inarguably revolutionary ideas.
Grossman’s adherence to pure indulgence in the face of Jung’s stubborn logic could conceivably be seen as a particularly apt expression of Cronenberg’s filmic persona, as A Dangerous Method is, arguably, Cronenberg’s most aesthetically proper and restrained film to date. And yet it is, after all the cake and watermelon, undeniably Cronenbergian, with every character’s id squirming like the parasites of Shivers. The general sobriety and undiluted professionalism of Cronenberg’s images here can barely hide the hunger for flesh and self-obliterating sex, and the preposterous lengths taken to contain such appetites, that have always been at the heart of Cronenberg’s oeuvre.
Jung’s frustration and emotional turmoil over these competing “needs,” as well as Grossman’s lick-the-plate-clean philosophy and Freud’s brutal, unwavering intelligence, are integral to the story, the skeleton and healthy muscle of the film. But this is ultimately a movie about Spielrein and her ascension from the madness of repression, and if it doesn’t lay to rest any doubts as to Knightley’s abilities as an actress, I don’t know what will. Introduced in a fit of lashing out in physical extremity, due largely to a diagnosis of hysteria, Knightley sports a Russian accent and gives all of her lean physicality to the role, making Spielrein’s transformation from damaged patient to revered psychoanalyst both irrefutably convincing and emotionally rewarding. Spielrein is a paradigm of the formation of a unique sexual and social identity, and a distinctly feminine identity in what was then the locker room of psychoanalysis. Moreover, she’s a creature of Cronenberg, like BrundleFly, Tom Stall, and the Mantle brothers—a persona hand-dipped in the primordial slime of sex and violence, contained, extirpated, reconstituted, and then unleashed.
Sony has done an exemplary job with this 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer, which puts great stress on detail and texture. The definition and crispness of even the minutest parts of the image is stunning; check the ash and brown wrapper of Freud’s cigar, or the portions of food that Michael Fassbender heaps onto his plate and then devours. Clarity is excellent and colors (mostly whites, blacks, and browns) look lovely in every single frame. The audio matches that level of brilliance, as the dialogue is crisp and clearly out front, with sound effects, diagetic music, and Howard Shore’s wonderful score blending with lovely coherence in the back. A very handsome package, all told.
As always, David Cronenberg provides an engaging and thought-provoking commentary that attests to not only his formidable intelligence, but also to his particular practices in preparing, directing, and cutting his films. He talks at length about the history involved in the film, but also goes in depth into the thematic choices and decision his actors make; there’s a great bit where he references an exchange between Viggo Mortensen and himself over Freud’s choice of cigars. The making-of featurettes is decidedly more by-the-books fair, but the AFI Harold Lloyd Master Seminar with Cronenberg is a delightful discussion of the film and its origins. A trailer is also included.
Despite its lovely vistas, costumes, sets, and noticeable lack of innards, creatures, and sludge, A Dangerous Method proves that Cronenberg is as Cronenberg does.