Monday, September 12, 2011

TIFF Review 2011: "A Dangerous Method"

(Gala Presentations)
(Germany/Canada, 2011, 93 minutes)
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, Sarah Gadon, Vincent Cassel

Hard to believe these days when seemingly every other person on television is in analysis and/or trying to shake off some trauma (real-or-imagined) to justify their dumb-ass behaviour (to the likes of so-called “Doctors” Phil and Drew) that once, not all that long ago, the very concept of psychoanalysis was not only laughed but downright vilified...

At first blush this austere costume drama might seem an odd fit in the filmography of the man who conceived of Brundlefly and The New Flesh, but the consistent thread of virtually all of Cronenberg's films (with the possible exception of "Fast Company" and "Eastern Promises") is the disconnect between the mind and body. Freudian imagery abounds in his work--"Shivers" oral parasites? Marilyn Chambers' armpit stinger? Woods' stomach fissure?

In Vienna, just before the advent of the WW1, novice psychiatrist Carl Jung (Fassbender), runs a clinic and practices the methods of his mentor, the already-notorious and controversial Sigmund Freud (Mortensen), while developing his own theories based on the study of his own psychologically troubled patients.
When a young Russian woman Sabina Spielrein (Knightly) is brought in as a patient, her unique sexual obsessions strike a chord and unleash Jung's own buried desires. As he uses "the talking cure" to help her explore and purge the dark incidents of her past with her sadistic father, Jung's desire for her intensifies and they form a relationship of forbidden indulgences. Jung starts to challenge the limitations of his mentor's theories and visits him to offer his own thoughts on human desire, based upon his experiences with Sabina, who is fast becoming a skilled and sensitive analyst in her own right...
Screenwriter Christopher Hampton adapted the film from his own play The Talking Cure, (based on John Kerr’s A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein) and was originally intended as a vehicle for Julia Roberts. Thankfully revised, under Cronenberg's direction, it offers little by the way of sentimentality and noble statements.

Despite the heady subject matter, there’s still fun to be had here, as Jung and Sabine eventually get around to covert romps to get their respective inner freaks on. Vincent Cassell enlivens up much of the period brow-furrowing and hand-wringing as the boozing, hedonistic psychoanalyst Otto Gross, who encourages his patients to celebrate rather than repress their sexual instincts. And Mortenson, in a brave bit of casting (his third collaboration with the director) brings some wry wit as a more robust and hedonistic Freud than the frail figure we've seen in photos.

Fassbender, seemingly everywhere these days, masterfully embodies a man of an almost Vulcanesque decorum that gets chipped away as he finds a willing outlet in Sabina.

I wasn't so sold on Knightly as Sabina initially--I found her initial scenes hammy and too-"methody", but as her character gains composure under Jung's therapy she becomes more bearable and convincing...

Cronenberg has flippantly referred to the film as "an intellectual menage a trois", but really, how unique a subject is it? Wasn't “Dead Ringers” the tale of two doctors who spar for the affections of a kinky female patient?)

©2011 Robert J. Lewis