NYFF 2011: A DANGEROUS METHOD Review
My gendered phrase "medical men" in the above was intentional, as male authority and its expression in social institutions such as medicine are frequently the subject of critique in Cronenberg films. In this context, A Dangerous Method is notable for how explicitly it dramatizes the notion of intellectual authority and the struggle to achieve/maintain it--and of course in this respect we should give credit to the source texts, a play and a nonfiction book, not to mention the real-life Freud and Jung, for providing such juicy conflict in the first place. But even more importantly, A Dangerous Method throws a monkey-wrench into gender-politics-as-usual by having a female character, Sabina Spielrein, so convincingly convey, and represent, a point of view that refreshingly steers clear from Father-Son tensions altogether. A patient herself--the film opens with the memorable image of her "hysteria" contained in a horse-drawn carriage--Spielrein comes to function, through her insightful theories gleaned from experience, as an ego-less vehicle for the true advancement of psychoanalysis on its most profound levels. I must confess, though, that despite the centrality of the character to the narrative, I was initially taken aback by Keira Knightley's top-billing in the credits (and poster, now that I think of it). After all, wasn't this a film about Freud and Jung, portrayed by Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender (my nominee for actor of the year) respectively, both of whom give what strike me as not only flawless performances, but extremely generous ones? In addition, Knightley's jaw-thrusting, de-glammed performance, complete with Streepesque Russian accent, initially came across as Oscar-bait that turned me off even as it impressed from the standpoint of pure technique.
Yet a funny thing happened as the narrative progressed. Spielrein became more dimensional, and consequently so did Knightley's acting. In fact, by the time things concluded, I was not surprised to learn via screenwriter/playwright Christopher Hampton that his original text was titled Sabina, and focused on her. His film script, however, like the stage play before it, takes Jung as our protagonist. And yet, as is clear from the film itself in numerous sly ways and Cronenberg's own verbal admission, his philosophical sympathies lie squarely with Freud (Jungians will be disappointed by not a single mention of the words "collective unconscious" or "archetype"). Oh, and that's not all. Throw into the mix the counterpoint of Id-driven Otto Gross, played by Vincent Cassel in what's not just his best English-speaking role, but one that benefits hugely from the badboy charisma of his screen persona à la Mesrine.
The result is an extraordinarily complex and literate drama of ideas--one that just happens to be beautifully designed, shot, and edited. Yes, it does help if one is familiar with some of those ideas to begin with; if not, there is a bit of exposition here and there, some of which is awkward at least in comparison to all the dry wit and intelligence otherwise on display. Then again, for those who aren't familiar with the early days of psychoanalysis, A Dangerous Method may be even more eye-opening. Either way, though, it's a film about which I feel hesitant to make additional pronouncements at this point: it's so rich, and in so many ways, that it really needs to be re-viewed before it's reviewed.