A Dangerous Method: David Cronenberg goes all anal
After the first few opening scenes of David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, it’s hard to shake the sinking realization that this movie is dead-on-arrival. But, like anything that dies young, it leaves behind a beautiful corpse. Cronenberg’s true-to-life tale of the relationship between Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud and Sabina Spielrein, a woman who first was a patient of Jung’s and then, with his and Freud’s urging, became one of the first female psychoanalysts, offers intriguing possibilities. But the director, working in a style that can best be described as embalmed, drains the blood, the lust and the passion from the sexual and analytical confrontations that drive the story.
Cronenberg’s lifelong fascination with the maladies and infections and genetic mutations that scientists first toy with and then unleash upon the world seems suited to this tale of repression and misdiagnosis. His visual design is gorgeous, exacting and stripped of clutter, a perfect realization of the buttoned-down Edwardians threatened by rumblings of women’s suffrage and class mobility. But this conceit is obvious and restrictive. Cronenberg’s eye for detail and nuance is, as usual, unerring, but the repressive atmosphere makes for a dull film. A Dangerous Method plods and annoys.
Two fine actors, Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortenson, are pitted against in each other in far too few scenes. Much of the real action in the movie happens offscreen, in between stiff, uptight encounters in drawing rooms and flats. Fassbender, as Jung, looks great in his rimless spectacles and suspenders and Mortenson, who could play a paper bag and make it the most stunning performance in a film, hints at the fascinating terrain not covered in his short scenes as Freud. But both actors are treated as pieces on a game board, moved about according to Cronenberg’s intentions rather than any inherent narrative momentum the story contains. Fassbender and Mortenson however, fare far better than Keira Knightley, playing Spielrein with a performance that is, to put it delicately, uncorked.
The blame for Knightley’s grimacing, groping, jaw-jutting, teeth-clenching, clawing, clutching interpretation of the woman who first shows up in Jung’s office as a deranged patient and then becomes a serious and practiced colleague of his, must also be laid at Cronenberg’s feet. His direction is so anal retentive in every other respect he must have commanded Knightley to cut loose, unleashing an hysterical and at times embarrassing display of theatrical antics which makes her sudden emergence as a student implausible and as a lover repellent.
The movie sparks to life only when Knightley is spanked, which demonstrates Cronenberg’s always thrilling interests in bizarre sex and repressed obsessions are still intact, but the rest of A Dangerous Method, leaden and thudding, is another dispiriting reminder that Cronenberg’s career since 1986’s delirious and wonderfully macabre The Fly can be summed up with a word that simply doesn’t suit him: respectable.