Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Oct 04, 2011 3:43 pm 
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A waxen gala

A Dangerous Method is a beautifully made but curiously and depressingly safe film. It tells the true story of a Russian Jewish woman called Sabina Spielrein, at first a patient of Karl Jung, then his lover, who eventually came to be associated with Jung's Viennese colleague and eventual adversary, Sigmund Freud, and later, through the encouragement of both men, became a pioneer in psychotherapy in her own right. The joint connection came to define and crystallize the fraught relationship between the two leading early figures in psychological theory and psychoanalysis. Christopher Hampton, the playwright and screenwriter, originally developed the script from a book called A Dangerous Method by John Kerr, for a film that didn't get made. Undaunted, the tireless adaptor instead turned it into a play called The Talking Cure that was produced on the London stage, and later he turned that into the screenplay from which Cronenberg made this film starring Michael Fassbender (as a sensitive but slightly too dapper Jung) and Viggo Mortensen (as an almost equally dapper, slightly older, constantly cigar-smoking Freud) and Keira Knightly (as a mugging, twisting, Russian-accent affecting Spielrein). The film is beautiful, elegant, and lifeless. Even the S&M scenes are like postcards of a swiss kitchen.

The lifelessness begins with the screenplay, a handsomely crafted piece of work which seems a little too much like an articulate Brit's Freud and Jung for Dummies. Hampton is great at the well-made play or the filmable adaptation, but boy does he do it by the numbers sometimes. (Dangerous Liaisons was another story.) Everything is clarified and simplified to the point where it contains virtually nothing about psychology that will be news to a basic student. This concerns two of the most exciting intellectual figures of the twentieth century, men whose work changed how we think about sex, emotion, the mind. And yet, here, in this film by a director who has dealt in horror and madness, it has all become so tidy and Germanic that it's like looking at a diagram.

Another problem is the casting. Knightley impresses when she is prim and beautiful. A raging neurotic with huge daddy issues, and Russian Jewish to boot, is way out of her range. Both Mortensen and Fassbender are wild men. Cut them loose and they can give you an edge of macho danger that's first class. The old Cronenberg, or what was left of him in A History of Violence, gave Mortensen room to be a mild mannered man who killed men with sudden precision. Fassbender likewise works well with extremes as he got a chance to do in Inglourious Basterda and the more recent X-Men: First Class, not to mention the ultimate testing he went through as Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen's searing Hunger. If you compare him in Jane Eyre and as the Irish seducer of his girlfriend's young daughter in Andrea Arnold's excellent Fish Tank you can see he can get stiff and remote in period costume, while given something closer to home he can chill you and charm you like nobody else you've ever seen. Even though there are sex scenes, he doesn't even seem to take his pants off for them as Jung. This Freud and Jung look too similar physically and too close in age. Good for Mortensen, who is actually 19 years older than Fassbender, but he looks very much younger. Both men are way more sexy than this. They are on their good behavior. Fassbender has some good moments. But Mortensen seems to be on Valium, delivering every line in the same slow, easy, somnolent pace.

It's hard to pass over the fact that the whole thing is done in English (though Fassbender in real life speaks German), the two men speaking a standardized version and Knightley, her version of a Russian accent (which perhaps fortunately comes and goes). Along with this, the production. It is beautiful. But nothing is allowed to be dark and messy. Freud's office was a huge disappointment. We all know what it looked like, the oriental rugs, the clutter. But the clutter is all swept to one side, lined up along the walls. The filmmakers prefer to shoot their people in brightly lit rooms or outside in very sunny open spaces. Gosh, I mean, wasn't the unconscious a dark and scary place? Weren't archetypes huge and mysterious and powerful? One is overwhelmed by starched white linen here.

Is there any need to point out that we don't get to delve into these men's revolutionary and controversial ideas? The "talking cure" is just that. Jung sits behind the twisty Fraulein Spielrein and asks her questions. That seems to be all that was required to turn her from a raving maniac into an outstanding medical student. Those Russian Jewish girls are quick studies. This is Jung using Freud's methods of psychoanalysis. He never really gets to explore his own ideas, just to listen to Freud calling them quackery that will spoil the new methodology's reputation. We want Freud to be broody and difficult and messed up and brilliant and Jung to be a little wild and visionary and mystical. None of that. Too much starched linen.

It's official now: David Cronenberg has fallen in love with his new respectability as an auteur. The respectability was probably creeping in with Spider, and the mantle was bestowed with A History of Violence and ratified with Eastern Promises. Since Viggo was important in both of these, he doubtless had to be kept on for A Dangerous Method, and the job of playing Freud was open. Where is the "king of venereal horror," the "baron of blood"? The guy who gave us eXistenZ, and before that Videodrome, The Dead Zone, and The Fly? Or the gloriously sicko Dead Ringers, which gave even Japan horror fans the creeps? I personally love the man's Naked Lunch. Burroughs' book is unfilmable, but Cronenberg made something deliriously and hilariously trippy out of it nonetheless. You could hash over many other titles, and some of them may drift further toward art or hack work. But when you look over these, it's hard to see A Dangerous Method as a job for this director.

A Dangerous Method, chosen a "gala screening" of the 2011 New York Film Festival along with Almod├│var's The Skin We Live In, is one of those ceremonial moments in a film festival. It is a chance to celebrate a lifetime of interesting work by rewarding something impeccable but unexciting. Mortensen has done great stuff for the Canadian director. Fassbender is one of the hottest actors of today. And Knightley is, well, the flavor of last month. But if this was meant to generate the kind of excitement that arose from the David Finccher-Aaron Sorkin collaboration The Social Network last year, or the level of pop-historical genius the NYFF jury anointed in the Stephen Frears-Peter Morgan partnership that produced The Queen for NYFF 2006, they were very sadly mistaken.

A Dangerous Method, one of two NYFF films starring Michael Fassbender (the other being Steve McQueen's Shame), will be released by Universal Pictures in the US November 23; in the UK February 10, 2012.

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