Wednesday, October 19, 2011
NYFF Review #5: A DANGEROUS METHOD
There's a moment in David Cronenberg's A DANGEROUS METHOD in which Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (a transformed Viggo Mortensen) are on a steam ship approaching that longtime home of all things neurotic, New York City, where they will unveil their "talking cure," called psychoanalysis, at a prestigious doctor's conference. Freud puffs on his ubiquitously phallic cigar and, knowing his relationship with Jung has reached an unfixable impasses, he wonders "Do you think they know we're bringing the plague with us?" It's such a perfect Cronenbergian line, since the director's dealt with so many plagues in his movie career. Yet this bitterly witty bit belongs to screenwriter Christopher Hampton. He's the hero behind this smart adaptation of his play THE TALKING CURE, which is in turn an adaptation of John Kerr's book A MOST DANGEROUS METHOD, which takes much of its content directly from Freud and Jung's copious letters to each other. This is most certainly Hampton's finest work since winning the Academy Award for adapting DANGEROUS LIASONS for the screen back in 1988.
But there's a third player in this juicy slice of history who's been unjustly forgotten, and that's Sabina Speilrein, a Russian woman played by a committed but sometimes too stagey Keira Knightly. A knowledgeable student of psychology herself, Sabina's torturous malady is, at the film's beginning, a violent reaction to her adolescent sexual arousal experienced at the hand of her strict father, who beat her mercilessly. Let's face it--she liked it. Humiliation begets humiliation in Sabina's tangled mind, and this leads her maniacally laughing and screaming into Jung's office, where the buttoned-down doctor's blue eyes jump in barely contained delight at her jaw-jutting affliction and his opportunity to remedy it. Soon enough, Sabina is begging Jung, who's stuck in a marriage that bores him, to break with ethical boundaries; she wants this cure to involve much more than mere talking.
Jung vacillates between cavings and protests, and it takes Sabina's reach out to Freud to seal the deal. In a jealously semitic whirl of strategy (Sabina and Sigmund are jews; Jung is not), Freud encourages Jung to stray from his moral boundaries, and thereby perhaps unknowingly opens both Sabina and Jung up to a doomed relationship that was somehow perfect in its imperfection. I find all of this incredibly funny stuff. This might be Cronenberg's most amusing film, in that it takes such wonderful jabs at psychoanalysis, and how the process very well might be more about the doctor than the patient. Of course, Hampton's always entertaining, intellectually challenging screenplay is key to this aim.
Cronenberg's newest chilly foray into the human makeup eventually being to resemble in inventive ways his 1988 masterpiece DEAD RINGERS, another film in which two doctors--twins, even, who are reflective of each other--find a woman standing in the way of their relationship's further consummation. A DANGEROUS METHOD might benefit from some pre-viewing research into the circuitous nature of psychoanalysis, as it contains a tidal wave of detailed psycho-geekery that I suspect could be even more highly amusing to the more informed. However, the corseted performance from Fassbender, and the really adroit support from the remarkable Viggo Mortensen, coupled with Knightly undeniable energy and capped off with Hampton's deft wordsmithing all do their part in helping Cronenberg achieve his slyly worked-out goals.