Film review: A Dangerous Method

The master of 'body horror' turns to the monsters of the mind in an exploration of psychoanalysis. Davina Quinlivan investigates

February 2, 2012

Casting shadows: Spielrein (Knightley) embodies a corrosive concept of psychoanalysis that threatens to engulf Jung (Fassbender, left) and Freud (Mortensen)

A Dangerous Method

Directed by David Cronenberg

Starring Keira Knightley, Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen

Released in the UK on 10 February

The opening titles of David Cronenberg's latest film unfold as a series of dark waves and intricate lines indicating a succession of inky, handwritten inscriptions lightly traced over a papery surface. While the pen-and-ink titles reveal to the viewer the crux of the film's narrative, which centres on the triangular relationship fostered via written correspondence between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and the first successful recipient of the "talking cure", Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), the distortion that is created from the frequent close-ups of the inked words invariably calls to mind the Rorschach blots famously aligned with psychoanalysis and the hidden unconscious.

Indeed, Cronenberg has already actively employed the Rorschach motif, during the opening titles of his 2002 feature Spider. Its protagonist's struggle with schizophrenia is foreshadowed by the film's opening imagery, dense with monochrome, spidery shapes and textures. While the psychic terror experienced by the protagonist (Ralph Fiennes) is made manifest in the subtle texture and tonality of Spider, the explicit subject of psychoanalysis itself and its pioneering experiments leads to a far more controlled and rigorous exploration of the fragile interstices that might exist between rationality, desire and repression in the aptly titled A Dangerous Method.

With a corpus of work spanning more than 30 years, Cronenberg is well known for his thematic exploration of the modern condition and his questioning of what it means to be a technological entity as well as a sexual subject. He is drawn to the concept of metamorphosis, to the transgression of hetero-normative identity in which cultural anxieties about sexual difference and the physicality of modern life are monstrously made flesh.

Cronenberg's recent films - Spider, A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007) - have tended to avoid his characteristic "body horror" motifs, and they seem to represent a more evolved, nuanced and complex facet of corporeal anxiety and malevolence first explored in earlier films such as Dead Ringers (1988), Naked Lunch (1991), M Butterfly (1993) and Crash (1996). Freud, Jung and Spielrein are reborn as Cronenbergian entities, sinewy and physically perfect, yet unsettling as taut, disciplined intellectuals struggling to break free of social constraints and ever-tightening moral codes. If The Fly (1986) underscored the primal aspects of humanity that lurk beneath the veneer of social order, then Spielrein undergoes a similar transformation, only this time it is mental illness that is monstrous.

A Dangerous Method opens with an unnerving jolt to the nervous system, with several disturbing images of Spielrein being admitted to a Swiss clinic in which most of the film is set. While Knightley's body remains intact, her psychic pain is conveyed through a series of contortions and jerks similar to those suggested by the Expressionist painter Edvard Munch in The Scream. Cronenberg has always implied that the mind and body suffer equally, but here, as we watch Spielrein convulse and later learn of her fascination with psychoanalysis, it is clear that the director has turned his attention to the discipline of psychoanalysis itself as yet another dangerous disease whose tantalising power lies in liberating the repressed.

The film offers a study of psychoanalysis (rather than a historical biopic), which conceives of the discipline as an infectious addiction, like the deadly cathode rays in Videodrome (1983), or the video games plugged into the spinal cords of gamers in eXistenZ (1999). While Spielrein's recovery proves that psychoanalysis is an effective science, her sexual desire remains fixed on the pleasures that had been the source of her mental breakdown: her father's sexual abuse and its pivotal intertwining with her sexual maturation. Jung embarks on an indulgent, sado-masochistic affair with Spielrein, while Freud is implicated in the machinations of its progression and conclusion. Spielrein thus embodies the concept of psychoanalysis as a corrosive entity that threatens to also engulf Freud and Jung. The Freudian concept of the Ego is then contextualised as the site of willing contamination as the three protagonists struggle to define themselves while depending on each other, in various ways, for survival.

The subject matter and the meticulous research that is evident throughout Cronenberg's film owes much to the involvement of Christopher Hampton, whose play The Talking Cure provides the source material for A Dangerous Method. Hampton's adaptation retains much of his stringent and subtly comedic dialogue, but the film's overall lack of cinematic virtuosity, especially its static staging of key moments, suggests that Hampton is somewhat out of sync with the very medium whose role it is to breathe life into his words.

The direction of the acting, including the delivery of carefully constructed accents and speech patterns, is formidable, but the wider aesthetics of the film, the mise en scène, the production design in general, is rather more clinical and accurate than existential or metaphysical. In Spider, Cronenberg gestured towards the inner life of his Beckett-like protagonist, drawing attention to peeling wallpaper, hieroglyphic marks on walls and notepads, nicotine-stained fingernails and gas towers that seemed to channel the French artist Louise Bourgeois' giant spider sculpture, affectionately named Maman.

During a key scene in which Jung seeks out Spielrein in her quarters at the clinic, he brushes his hands over her personal artefacts, but what we see does nothing more than meet our expectations, leaving no room for the viewer's imagination to take hold. The clinic, too, is shot obliquely, unlike the phantasmic interiors of Spider or the cars in Crash. Perhaps Cronenberg did not wish to invest his latest film with too much aesthetic detail and risk distracting the viewer from the central focus on Freud, a subject already rich with meaning and symbolism, but it is the modernity of Cronenberg's films and their landscapes that complements his fascination with the human body and living, breathing flesh. The outer world that is portrayed in A Dangerous Method does not quite match the psychical distortion and hidden pain that is exquisitely embodied by Knightley, Fassbender and Mortensen.

More broadly, Cronenberg's film also reminds us of Freud's impact on film narratives, including the melodrama genre in which analysts were first represented on screen. For example, whereas Bette Davis is helped to "find herself" and transform into a social butterfly by a Freudian in Now, Voyager (1942), an intellectual monster is sculpted in the shape of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

Psychoanalytic discourse has also dominated the scholarly analysis of film ever since Laura Mulvey's seminal 1975 essay "Visual pleasure and narrative cinema", in which the Freudian theorisation of sexual difference and patriarchal ideology served as the foundation for the viewer's identification with male subjects and their acknowledgement of female subjects as visual objects in classical Hollywood cinema, especially in the films of Hitchcock. Mulvey's essay remains the cornerstone of all undergraduate studies in film, but there are also key changes currently under way.

Continental philosophy is now providing an appealing framework for film analysis and enables a different set of questions to be raised about ethics, selfhood and the ontological nature of cinema itself (the idea of film as a philosophical form of artistic expression). If Cronenberg's cinema is compatible with psychoanalysis, then film-makers such as Terrence Malick and Claire Denis are in tune with film's philosophical corollaries (Malick studied philosophy at university and his cinema style tends to be influenced by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, and Denis has worked closely with the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy).

Cinema is entering a new age of intellectual rigour and creative expression; while it might not live up to the expectations of Cronenberg aficionados, A Dangerous Method reminds us of the intricate links between creative endeavour and the science of cinematic experimentation.

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