Shrinks in comparison to Cronenberg’s other work

Have we lost another great or is Cronenberg merely taking time out to make his ‘straight stories’? Perhaps it is inevitable that for someone of Cronenberg’s calibre, the choice of a new direction is bound to lead to the mainstream – there aren’t that many directions after all – and one can only wonder whether A Dangerous Method, along with predecessors Eastern Promises and A History of Violence, mark the end of an era for an auteur previously lauded for skilfully and imaginatively utilising visual allegory to reveal our deepest, darkest and dirtiest inner demons.

A Dangerous Method opens as an ambitious Carl Jung (Fassbender) begins practising the untested psychoanalytical theories pioneered by his mentor Sigmund Freud (Mortensen). Jung’s first guinea pig is a chin-juttingly jittery psychotic and sexual deviant, Sabina Spielrein (Knightley), and despite Jung’s attempts to remain loyal to his tepid, pregnant wife and to his own sense of professionalism and morality, a spankingly sadomasochistic sexual relationship develops between the two. This is mirrored by the development of a personal and professional friendship between Jung and Freud that, as the film progresses, sours due to professional differences between the two men – Freud feels that psychoanalysis is still in its infancy and therefore vulnerable to criticism by his peers, and as such should be cautiously and meticulously developed, whereas Jung’s ambition drives him to seek answers in less scientifically credible fields. Fitful exchanges of letters and encounters between this trio thus form the backbone of the film, resulting in an endless series of dry discussions that all seem to take place on or around water – read into that what you will, although if the words ‘mother’ and ‘womb’ don’t come to mind, then you’re probably repressing something.

This new film is by no means without merit, and it is clear that Cronenberg has retained a semblance of his roots, employing subtext to tell a simple yet compelling story about the foibles of human sexuality. However, the central characters, and therefore the actors’ performances, are muted by the fact that, as psychologists, they are far too busy analysing their own behaviour to bother with the tiresome task of actually feeling or reacting to anything instinctively. This subjugation of the self is admirably attempted and well-intended, but hard to pull off on screen without some impressive acting or imaginative use of the visual medium – neither of which are sufficiently present here – thus calling into question the wisdom of adapting this John Kerr novel in the first place.

The script is a model of narrative economy and efficiency and rarely spoon-feeds the audience, although a feeling of redundancy is never too far away. In Mortensen, it appears the director has found his muse, delivering just the ratio of machine to mortal that Cronenberg requires, and while Knightley does what she can with a poorly developed role, it is frustrating at times to see her character show such little on-screen development as she inextricably morphs from a tick-ridden temptress to a sure-footed, well-respected psychologist in her own right.

The dilemma here is whether to judge this film independently of its director’s previous work or not. If one makes the comparison, the film disappoints; if not, it is an understated, uncompromising effort at a purer cinema, albeit only partially successful. The implication here is not that filmmakers should simply regurgitate a winning formula, but Cronenberg has previously offered genuine filmic originality, devastating psychological examination and unpretentious abstraction without becoming repetitive or stale. It is therefore all the more difficult to accept this shift without feeling a sense of loss.



A Dangerous Method (15)

Dir: David Cronenberg;

US drama, 2012, 99 mins; Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Vincent Cassel
Premiered June 21
Playing nationwide