NYFF 2011: A DANGEROUS METHOD Review

During yesterday's press conference at Lincoln Center, director David Cronenberg insisted he doesn't think about his past pictures while engaged in the making of a new one. That doesn't mean that audiences, and more specifically his legions of fans--and I'm one of them, let's get that disclosure out of the way--won't instantly see the thematic similarity between A Dangerous Method and, well, practically his entire body of work. To horror-philes who care little for other genres, the period drama trappings of this new film may be off-putting, but I'll hazard that to most everyone else it stands a good chance of showing up looking a bit like a crowning achievement.  Cronenberg himself reminded the press in attendance that he took clinical psychology as the topic for his very first film, the short Transference, and of course we've seen medical men, scientists, and researchers on the edge, or over it, in films such as Dead Ringers, Rabid, and The Fly, to name just a few. Often their ostensibly dispassionate approach to the carnal is belied by the very passion they have for their work, or simply their passion, period. In this sense they of course represent Cronenberg surrogates, since I'm hard pressed to name other auteurs whose films so brilliantly use cerebral methods and a detached tone to reveal the vast mysteries of our corporeal selves.

My gendered phrase "medical men" in the above was intentional, as male authority and its expression in social institutions such as medicine are frequently the subject of critique in Cronenberg films. In this context, A Dangerous Method is notable for how explicitly it dramatizes the notion of intellectual authority and the struggle to achieve/maintain it--and of course in this respect we should give credit to the source texts, a play and a nonfiction book, not to mention the real-life Freud and Jung, for providing such juicy conflict in the first place. But even more importantly, A Dangerous Method throws a monkey-wrench into gender-politics-as-usual by having a female character, Sabina Spielrein,  so convincingly convey, and represent, a point of view that refreshingly steers clear from Father-Son tensions altogether. A patient herself--the film opens with the memorable image of her "hysteria" contained in a horse-drawn carriage--Spielrein comes to function, through her insightful theories gleaned from experience, as an ego-less vehicle for the true advancement of psychoanalysis on its most profound levels. I must confess, though, that despite the centrality of the character to the narrative, I was initially taken aback by Keira Knightley's top-billing in the credits (and poster, now that I think of it). After all, wasn't this a film about Freud and Jung, portrayed by Viggo Mortensen  and Michael Fassbender (my nominee for actor of the year) respectively,  both of whom give what strike me as not only flawless performances, but extremely generous ones? In addition, Knightley's jaw-thrusting, de-glammed performance, complete with Streepesque Russian accent, initially came across as Oscar-bait that turned me off even as it impressed from the standpoint of pure technique.

Yet a funny thing happened as the narrative progressed. Spielrein became more dimensional, and consequently so did Knightley's acting. In fact, by the time things concluded, I was not surprised to learn via screenwriter/playwright Christopher Hampton that his original text was titled Sabina, and focused on her. His film script, however, like the stage play before it, takes Jung as our protagonist. And yet, as is clear from the film itself in numerous sly ways and Cronenberg's own verbal admission, his philosophical sympathies lie squarely with Freud  (Jungians will be disappointed by not a single mention of the words "collective unconscious" or "archetype"). Oh, and that's not all. Throw into the mix the counterpoint of Id-driven Otto Gross, played by Vincent Cassel in what's not just his best English-speaking role, but one that benefits hugely from the badboy charisma of his screen persona à la Mesrine.

The result is an extraordinarily complex and literate drama of ideas--one that just happens to be beautifully designed, shot, and edited.  Yes, it does help if one is familiar with some of those ideas to begin with; if not, there is a bit of exposition here and there, some of which is awkward at least in comparison to all the dry wit and intelligence otherwise on display.  Then again, for those who aren't familiar with the early days of psychoanalysis, A Dangerous Method may be even more eye-opening. Either way, though, it's a film about which I feel hesitant to make additional pronouncements at this point:  it's so rich, and in so many ways, that it really needs to be re-viewed before it's reviewed.
 
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