“A Dangerous Method”: Cronenbergian, it certainly isn’t

From a cinemaniac with an unrivalled CV of obscenities, the only thing shocking about ‘A Dangerous Method’ is how normal it is. Aside from a few select spanking scenes, there’s little of what we’ve come to expect from the director who brought us the gynecological nightmare ‘Dead Ringers’ and the orifice-obsessed ‘Videodrome’. This ain’t necessarily a bad thing, though. Just as disappointed as when Scorsese took a left turn with ‘Age of Innocence’, critics have been unwilling to note the subtle and refined look of ‘A Dangerous Method’ as merely a continuation of Cronenberg’s evolution. No longer is he troubled by the disturbing things that could happen to our bodies, but the misery that can take place within. After toying with bodily inefficiencies (‘Spider’), the things that drive us to violence (‘A History of Violence’) and matters of identity (‘Eastern Promises’), it seems to me only natural that this Canadian extraordinaire would turn his lens on the discipline of psychoanalysis.

In this latest endeavour, Cronenberg ramps up the psycho-babble in the war of wills between early twentieth century doctors Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), as the former begins to apply the latter’s radical new ‘talking cure’ on a disturbed Russian patient, Sabina Speilmen (Keira Knightley). If you’re not a fan of dialogue-heavy films, then the academic interest surrounding this Freud-feud should only be a further reason for you to give in to your natural urges and go see ‘Project X’ instead. Cronenberg, on the other hand, gives the audience a slow paced, almost Merchant-Ivory piece of costume drama (with fetishism and adultery, of course) that follows Sigmund’s efforts to convince Carl that all human neuroses stem from our sexual desires while he spends every other second of the film sucking on a long, fat cigar (oral fixation, anyone?)

Hampton’s screenplay is the best kind of biopic: it makes no attempt to impossibly cover the breadth of its subjects’ entire lives, but rather focuses on a specific portion that nonetheless allows us to grasp the characters in full (take note, Abi Morgan and Dustin Lance Black). Mortensen and Fassbender excel as the rivalling duo, displaying their notoriously fierce intellect and latent passion perfectly onscreen. As for Knightley, many critics have called her performance an utter parody – especially in the early scenes when she shrieks and writhes like a woman possessed. I don’t entirely agree with such a damning diagnosis; there are some otherwise dull scenes that she lifts by just her sheer commitment and professionalism. Even if you find the underlying self-awareness of her performance distracting (some attempts to be beautiful even in deranged madness), it never threatens to derail a film that is just so well-crafted by the exquisite cinematography of Peter Suschitzky.

With his choice of material, however, Cronenberg has seemingly repressed his own natural instincts and thus left himself open to extensive analysis. ‘A Dangerous Method’ is still a provocative film with an erotic undertow, but there’s little spark of the visionary body-horror that he directs with such force and feeling. I recognise the fact that he has long been a filmmaker defined by his contradictions, but this addition to his oeuvre feels sadly staid by comparison (I can also think of at least four biopic-specialist directors who could have done an equally as strong job). This does not take away from, as I’ve said, the effective cinematography and easy rhythm of the acting, but with Cronenberg at the helm it all feels overly sedate and unduly chilly. Although he perfectly balances its orchestral soundtrack and visual theatricality, I was still hoping ‘A Dangerous Method’ would feature a spontaneous, naked sauna fight with Russian mobsters a la ‘Eastern Promises.’ I don’t know what that says about me, but in true Freudian style I suspect it has something to do with my mother.

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