Just fifteen minutes in, I was immensely grateful to the universe that I was watching David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method. Which sounds more like Jung than Freud. Well, Freud, I was just happy, how's that? It's an extraordinary thing--a movie that's mostly just people talking and where nothing hugely dramatic happens. There's no-one screaming from a mountain top while the music swells. Just wonderful talking--it's a tonic after weeks of watching 2011 movies playing it big, and it's great in itself. This is Cronenberg's best movie since Spider.
And when I say talking, I mean intellectual discourse. It's so cannily portrayed, I found myself wanting to engage with Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) when she starts putting forward the idea to Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) that Wagner's Siegfried suggests to us that pure, perfect things like the hero can only come from sin, even, as in the case of Siegfried, incest. I wanted to reply, "But Siegried's existence precipitates the end of the world. Then again, I guess you could blame the Nibelung for that." This is the third movie I've seen from this year to invoke Wagner (after Melancholia and Captain America). Jung would probably say I ought to pay attention to this, as he considers it significant that Spielrein brings up Siegfried not knowing he'd just begun writing a paper on Siegfried. But he tells her his favourite opera in Wagner's ring series is Das Rheingold, which doesn't even have Siegfried in it. Perhaps he liked it because it most concerns the dealings of the gods--it would make sense since he had a belief in mysticism, though I don't know if his preference for Das Rheingold is something invented for the movie.
I'd never heard of Sabina Spielrein but I loved her in this movie. Drawing from her own personality which was influenced by sexual abuse at the hands of her father, she crafts her interesting theory from Siegfried, suggesting a relationship between sex and the destruction of the ego, death, before Freud does. It's the first time I've really liked a Keira Knightley performance--I've seen her in movies I've liked, like Never Let Me Go, but her performance has always lacked layers for me. Here she has them and I suspect this has a lot to with Cronenberg restraining her at times. She does things in this movie I've never seen her do before--her strange physical mannerisms that begin fairly dramatic when Spielrein's in an asylum evolve naturally into subtler ripples of personality when she becomes cured by Jung, who uses Freud's methods with her.
I wasn't being very articulate yesterday and I wanted to say what made Hugo's characters so flat is that they think too slow. I heard people in the audience saying lines before the characters did. Children, even. A Dangerous Method shows how it's done right--when Jung laughs at his patient Otto Gross suggesting it's actually Gross who's been successfully treating Jung during their sessions, the audience laughs at the same time. This is on Cronenberg because we cut to Jung laughing--Cronenberg understands the pattern of human thought better than Scorsese does now, or maybe Scorsese just can't do it in the context of a film like Hugo.
Like Spielrein, I find myself compelled to agree with Freud's preference for a psychoanalytic discipline based more on the scientific method. Viggo Mortensen provides a slightly unorthodox portrayal of Freud but a fascinating and credible one. He's cool, confident and aloof to Jung's youthful, anxious need to develop more proactive methods, his version of psychoanalysis closer to religion than Freud's. At the same time I agreed more with Freud, I thought Jung was insightful in his claim that Freud had isolated himself among sycophants. When Freud refuses to tell Jung about a dream he had because he felt it would erode his position of authority, I agreed with Jung when he said that by saying this Freud lost his position of authority.
This has been the year of Fassbender, it seems--this is the third movie from this year I saw him in. And he gives a performance great and completely distinct from the others. He's anxious, but relatively cool and fairly ascetic.
By the way, I urge you not to watch the trailer for this movie before seeing it. I didn't watch the trailer until I used it to get these screenshots and it misrepresents the film pretty sensationally. It's, again, a delightfully low key film. So many movies make me think of the John Cleese line from Meaning of Life; "What's wrong with a kiss, boy? . . . we have all these possibilities before we stampede towards the clitoris."
I'm fascinated to see the screenwriter for A Dangerous Method is the same guy who wrote the screenplay for the over the top Atonement, which I guess goes to show what a difference a director makes. Of all Cronenberg's films, this one's probably closest to The Brood, and I'd say The Brood is a superior film for its terrifically imaginative and disturbing version of psychotherapy. But I wouldn't want to undersell A Dangerous Method. It's a too rare example of the power of people just exchanging ideas in a movie.