David Cronenberg is and probably always will be at his most passionate when flesh is falling off the bone and limbs are no longer limbs. That much is certain, and it is a shame that he’s spent the past decade wallowing away in prestige picture land, something never more true than in his 2011 would-be biopic A Dangerous Method. Good God, it is a turn of the century costume drama when all is said and done. And the absolute last thing we need is David Cronenberg making costume dramas.
The fact is, however, David Cronenberg is making costume dramas now, or at least he made one, and in this world pragmatism tells us we ought to accept the film on its own terms. A shame, yes, but despite reservations about this film’s existence, the fact of the matter is, A Dangerous Method exists, and if someone is going to rescue it from the embalmed, funereal world of the prestige biopic, it is probably going to be David Cronenberg. As much as I’d rather he produce something truly, well, dangerous while another version of A Dangerous Method by another director wallows away in tedium and is quickly forgotten, melding the two produces something not nearly as good as the former, but much better than the latter. And maybe something far more fascinating than either.
The fundamental thing about A Dangerous Method is that it is two movies in one. The first is exactly the druggy, draggy, calculated Oscar movie you’d expect from the “late winter released, history-based play adaptation centering two famous turn of the century figures who advanced thinking at the expense of their personal lives”. We get plenty of men in stodgy suits staring off in the distance in picture-esque locales and engaging in intellectual mustache-twirling, mustily rampaging on about “the true nature of mankind” in their most clipped voices so as to convey detachment and superiority at the expense of human feeling. There’s a surfeit of masturbatory discussion about the film’s designated important pet theme, whether or not human thought is rooted entirely in base-level sexual desires (Freud’s feeling) or whether higher level intellectual, existential questions come into play more actively (a view held by his disciple Carl Jung). A Dangerous Method is an Oscar movie, written by Christopher Hampton as an adaptation of his 2002 play “The Talking Cure”. The congested tone of the screenplay says as much to our face, never quite finding the right side of didactic to operate within. And if Oscars the script beckons, Cronenberg isn’t going to rebel against the call of prestige.
If he isn’t about to knock the script on its feet, however, he is thankfully willing to make it wobble a bit as it crosses the road. For at the same time as he traces this stuffier through-line narrative, he loads the film up with fascinatingly fleshy touches both small and large. Categorically the largest is Sabina Spielrein (Kiera Knightley), the woman who Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Freud (Viggo Mortensen) both fall for. More than that though; they both fester a sort of obsessive intellectual attachment upon her, playing out their worldly understandings of psychology on her physical and mental state.
The key to unlocking Cronenberg’s film is that he is far more interested in the intimate details of making stuffy stuck-ups go bump in the night than he is in their medicinal quarrels. He achieves a carnal pleasure in openly lowering the film to the level of a Harlequin romance, lightly mocking the whole idea of Oscarbait by undercutting it with a layer of crispy gossip and thick on the ground psycho-sexuality.
Critics were right to point out that the lightly venomous Freud and the somber, proper Jung spend the film battling it out by way of carcinogen delivery mechanism (Freud exploring the nether regions of his pompous cigar as he chomps ruthlessly and with barely contained wrath, his piece positioned cheekily like a phallic object by Cronenberg, and Jung carefully and meticulously finding just the right amount of time to lightly peck his bourgeois pipe). But all the while Sabina looks overhead, potent and lustful, confused and cryptic, like a misunderstood beast injecting the only sense of life and vigor either of them has ever know. It’s not hard to see that Cronenberg is far more invested in this side of the film, and he often sacrifices any sense of meaningful drama in favor of his greater interest.
A neurotic animal crammed into a prim-and-proper world, Sabine is a curveball, and both Cronenberg and Knightley actively focus on her cartoon nature. She cuts through the film like a vicious, ferocious predator chasing after the tender, toothless Oscarbait prey, always pushing up against the drama and exaggerating how she doesn’t so much exist in the film as on top of it. Knightley attunes her to an accent that wouldn’t even seem safe in a Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoon, and her depiction of inner neurosis and the primal sexual desire that cures her makes virtually no gestures at reality. It’s not quite Cronenberg revealing the whole idea of this sort of stodgy costume drama for the artifice it really is (that would have elevated the film from good to great), but he hints at it once or twice, and the result is positively invigorating.
Knightley’s character is particularly interesting for how readily she contrasts herself with Fassbender’s intentionally tepid Jung, both of whom exist at odds with Mortensen’s illogically supercilious stereotype in a human body. None of the characters make any sense together, and yet they all seem to be exactly the versions of these people each actor intended. Cronenberg’s genius is to direct to the contrasts between the three rather than to hide the differences. The film is filled with intentionally sloppy cuts that contrast the buttoned up, brow raising world of Jung and Freud with the corporeal, immediate world of Jung and Sabina, intentionally juxtaposing the film’s betwixt Gemini nature. Cronenberg intentionally leaves narrative flow out of the film, cutting through years at a time without informing us, giving the film the impression of a half-remembered version of past events rather than a holistic flow.
He doesn’t quite get where he ought to, but the base pleasures of the film help it accrue a nervy and immediate fascination when so many other films released at the same time were smugly investing every shot and every tick with import and only knew the carnal craving of award’s season glory (not that this was unique to 2011, as 2014’s crop of Oscar-trapping molasses will have us know). Cronenberg seems less like he is making a prestige costume drama than he is playing around with the idea of a costume drama, and if the material on its own isn’t fascinating, Cronenberg’s variation on the material is.
The end result is, in short, a mess. It doesn’t work as a narrative nor does it meaningfully say anything at all about any of the three leads as people or why they choose the paths they do (although depicting the childhood focused Freud as a somewhat jejune self-centered scholar is a nice touch). Psychology is mostly left by the wayside, and this is all without mentioning the way in which individual scenes, stripped from the way Cronenberg uses them in relation to the film as a whole, have exactly the mildewy taste you might expect from something trotted out for Oscar season after years in the attic. It comes off less as a finished film than Cronenberg’s experiments in the dark (helped along by the fact that it moves at a sprightly 99 minutes, the sort of pulsing pace that at once keeps the film alert and fails it when it wishes to amount to anything beyond the superficial).
Then again, “Cronenberg’s experiments in the dark” sounds like a perfectly riveting little puzzle box, and the end effect of A Dangerous Method, if not successful, is entirely preferable to just about any other version of the story that could have been. It has no narrative flow, but this sort of jumbled, inconsequential approach helps it attain a certain singularity drive that feels like a mass of jumbled nerves clashing against one another (not unlike the mind incidentally). It doesn’t fully work, but it is always not working in a way that feels substantive and vital rather than washed-up and carted-out.