David Cronenberg is a particularly violent film director. When his films aren’t perpetuating violence on his protagonists or his audiences as in The Fly (1986), Videodrome (1983) or Crash (1996), they create a similarly oppressive, threatening, violence-tinged atmosphere to that of his recent, and under-appreciated, Eastern Promises (2007).
Equally, psychoanalysis as pioneered by Sigmund Freud is preoccupied with violence. Throughout its chequered history it has argued that man is inescapably in the grip of latent impulses, mostly sexual. He is, psychoanalytic theory has shown us, frequently helpless in the face of Eros, the drive towards life, sex and creation as well as what Wilhelm Stekel later termed, Thanatos or the death drive, a compulsion towards death and destruction. This is at the heart of man’s inner life, but this violence is also frequently reflected outwardly. In Civilisation and its Discontents, Freud argued that, “the inclination to aggression is an original, self-subsisting instinctual disposition in man”. Man, inside and out is unstable, frequently unsettled and violent, in the work of Cronenberg as well as Freud and his disciples.
For that reason, it would have been reasonable to expect that an on-screen meeting of the pair might have producing an altogether different film to the mostly pedestrian and strangely low-key. A Dangerous Method. The film examines the relationship between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and his divergent disciple C. G. Jung (Michael Fassbender) through the prism of the relationship between the latter and one of his patients, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), herself who was play an important role in the history of psychoanalytic treatment, the dangerous method of the film’s title. In short, Jung begins a sexual relationship with Speilrein, tinged teasingly with a liberal dose of spanking (as gratuitous as we might expect from a Hollywood blockbuster) which has its roots in her own humiliation-based neurosis. Freud is not impressed with the unethical nature of the relationship. He has little to say, however, about the spanking.
Rather than the final product quivering with tempestuous libidinal forces one might anticipate (not least because of the Knightly-spanking rumors which followed the film’s release), A Dangerous Method remains disappointing muted throughout. That’s not to suggest that cinema should be visceral, sensual and violent just because it can. Indeed, the tension of restrait can produce some wonderful works, as Hitchcock memorably remarked. Here, however, Cronenberg, in adapting Christopher Hampton’s play The Talking Cure for the screen (itself an adaptation of John Kerr’s book of the same name) appears to have fallen into the trap focussing on the theatrical, rather than, as in his previous films, even his previous literary adaptations Crash and Naked Lunch (1991) making a work that is specifically cinematic.
That said, Fassbeder and Mortensen’s performances are as polished as one would expect from the pair, but naturally within the constraints of Hampton’s script and Cronenberg’s direction; the latter resulting in little more than a lot of disappointingly low-key scenes featuring middle-aged men in suits talking politely. Emotionally, Eros and Thanatos are never brought to the boil, barely even simmering.
The only exception to this is Knightly’s unrestrained portrayal of Spielrein, particularly her early mental distress which manifests physically in a way that resonates with the paintings of Freud’s fellow Austrian Egon Sciehle (thanks to Lindsey for the tip-off). However, the hyper-intensity of Knightly’s acting, in contrast with the low-key Fassbender and Mortensen. Whilst appropriately incongruous, it actually serves to highlight Knighty’s limitations as an actress, something not helped by a bizarre Swiss/Russian/Austrian accent which, particularly in the light of the fact Fassbender and Mortensen remain anglicised, seems somewhat ludicrous.
A Dangerous Method is a missed opportunity. The idea is an exciting premise: a film exploring the ideas of and relationship between Jung and Freud, two of the twentieth centuries most radical thinkers through the lens of an ambitious and arguable equally radical director. The end result, however is not only devoid of violence, but also, ultimately, risk which doesn’t do justice to the work of Freud, Jung or even Cronenberg.