Despite the fact that David Cronenberg hasn’t made what could be called a horror picture since 1999’s eXistenZ, he continues to be thought of in genre terms. In part, that’s because it’s kind of hard to forget the horrific imagery in his films, like the malformed murderous midgets, the exploding heads and the fellows who lose guns in a suddenly appearing (and disappearing) stomach vagina. For better or worse, those images define Cronenberg for a lot of people. That his two most recent films—A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007)—make up in violence what they lack in terms of fantastication seem to establish the fact that you can take Cronenberg out of horror, but not the horrific out of Cronenberg. In that regard, his latest—a reasonably straightforward bit of historical speculation—may seem like a complete departure.
But is it really? Remember when he made the much-undervalued film version of M. Butterfly back in 1993? That seemed relatively straightforward, too—until it ended on an horrific suicide. Well, there’s nothing like that here—at least that we see. But the horrific is just beneath the surface of nearly every scene in A Dangerous Method. The title itself suggests it. The difference is that Cronenberg’s signature “body horror”—the fear of the body becoming something different and even monstrous—has here become an invisible prisoner of the mind. It’s still there. In a story about doctors Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), how could it not be? We are, after all, exploring the swamps of the subconscious. What we get is intellectual body horror. It’s not that far removed—just subdued and less gory—from the earlier Cronenberg films. That will disappoint some and please others.
None of this is to say that A Dangerous Method is in any way tentative in its approach. In fact, it opens on a moment of great intensity, with a raving, out-of-control patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), being transported to the clinic where Jung works. These opening scenes are completely over the top—something that has been (wrongly, I think) criticized by some reviewers. I’m not sure how you dial down full-blown hysterics, for one thing. More importantly, however, this wild creature that Spielrein first appears as is essential to the rest of her portrayal, and to the film itself. It is this frenzied, dangerous state that always lurks just beneath the surface of her increasingly calm, rational behavior.
The story is one of complex interactions among the characters, and despite the chamber-piece feel of the film, these are far too numerous to deal with in the space allowed here. Put simply, the central “dangerous method” occurs when Jung crosses the line into a personal relationship with Spielrein—one that we’re not entirely certain isn’t partly the result of his fear that if he doesn’t, whatever progress has been made with her will be lost. At the same time, he is encouraged in this relationship by a patient—and a fellow explorer in the new realm of psychology named Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), who has been foisted on him by Freud. Gross is—among other things—a cocaine addict who happily steals drugs from his doctor, and who preaches the idea of never sublimating any impulse.
That’s only part of the story, though, since much of A Dangerous Method deals with the relationship between Freud and Jung—and the factors leading to their eventual split. The film is savvy enough to suggest this event is more complicated than what either man believes to be the case. Much of this is conveyed less through the literate—but not overly pedantic—dialogue, and through little symbolic touches that reflect both Freudian and Jungian thought. In that regard, this is a film where the more you know on the topic, the more you will get from it.
But A Dangerous Method is actually after even bigger game. In its intimations that Richard Wagner’s music was a force that informed both Jung and Spielrein in their beliefs, it, in turn, brings in the specter of Hitler and Nazi Germany. (To our minds, but not theirs, of course. Howard Shore works Wagner’s themes into his score at key points that draw these parallels.) Yet the idea of what is coming exists as a seed of presentiment in Jung’s mind—what he calls an apocalyptic dream—of the coming of WWI, and possibly even WWII. His description of his dream fits both.
A Dangerous Method isn’t likely to entirely appeal to Cronenberg’s core audience (whatever that is at this point), but it is a richly rewarding—and sometimes disturbing—film in its own right. The performances by the three leads are all strong (even though I could never get away from a feeling that Mortensen was channeling George C. Scott in They Might Be Giants (1971), which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). The formalism of the film—often played out against a highly ordered world of formal gardens—helps to pin these new psychoanalytic ideas to the reality of the era, stressing how truly dangerous they must have seemed. Rated R for sexual content and language.