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David Cronenberg’s latest psychodrama really is just that. A
DANGEROUS METHOD, which had its world premiere at the current Toronto
International Film Festival and opens theatrically November 23 from Sony
Pictures Classics, may not be a horror film, but as it’s a character piece
about sex and history, charting the period when Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud
cross-pollinated each other’s lives and shared an interest in a most unusual
patient, the subject matter puts it very much in line with Cronenberg’s
previous body of work.
Michael Fassbender is excellent as Jung, a questing,
determined intellectual doctor who adheres to the theories of his colleague
Freud (played by recent Cronenberg regular Viggo Mortensen) and works to apply
them to his patients, especially Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a deeply
troubled, spastic Russian hurtbag of sexual dysfunction with a towering,
untapped intellect. When the otherwise moral—and married—Jung becomes sexually involved
with Spielrein, he enters a grey zone filled with sadomasochistic coupling,
cerebral meanderings and self-loathing. Meanwhile, Freud questions Jung’s
increasing interest in metaphysics, and Spielrein begins adapting Freud’s
theories to suit her own agenda.
Sounds dull, but it’s really not. The meticulously shot,
edited, scored and, of course, directed film is in fact, when you take a closer
look, the logical chamber-drama extension of Cronenberg’s first and most
frantic (and, to this writer, best) effort, 1975’s SHIVERS (a.k.a. THEY CAME
FROM WITHIN). In that wild picture, a sexual parasite is unleashed upon the
residents of a Montreal high-rise, turning them into carnal zombies, unleashing
the Freudian id with demented and lethal results. And yet, as the director has
always articulated, he was firmly on the side of the parasite. In A DANGEROUS
METHOD, Spielrein can be seen as the parasite, and her insistence that
indulging the command of the id and letting it destroy the ego is the only way
to achieve sexual liberation is exactly the same theme explored in SHIVERS. And
in fact, that submission to an alien, threatening influence and allowing it to
transform the self for both better and worse is the common theme coursing
through all of Cronenberg’s work.
And taken this way, Knightley’s performance makes sense—a
mass of jut-jawed, wild-eyed stuttering, twitches and unrefined emotion that
shakes the picture’s tranquility to its foundations. Many will reject
Knightley’s turn, but I view her as the “monster” and it’s a difficult role…and
she sells it. It’s amazing that you buy her intellect and are attracted to her
sensuality, yet still recoil at her behavior. It’s a complex performance, and
not one easily dismissed. Mortensen and Fassbender are topnotch in their less
showy but more nuanced, controlled parts and the crackling dialogue they spout
at each other (courtesy of screenwriter Christopher Hampton) is convincing and
For what it sets out to do, METHOD is a perfect film. It may
be far too highbrow and restrained for Cronenberg’s grittier fan base, but
those who have followed his evolution and understand his body of work will
really get off on it.
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