It may not first seem it, but this drama about the origins of psychoanalysis, adapted by Christopher Hampton from his own play, finds its ideal interpreter in David Cronenberg, who has, after all, forged his career by studying the beast within, and has always conveyed a special knowingness about the myriad ways in which the primitive bristles and burns at the spinal-psychic base of the bourgeoise. Tracing encounters between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), his acolyte, and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), Jung’s patient and mistress and, finally, an accomplished psychoanalyst in her own right, A Dangerous Method, which opens wide across Canada this weekend, is the story of a precarious new science’s difficult development, a love affair, and a friendship fraught with conflicting expectations. It’s also about doubt, the persistence of superstition, family, clothes, gardens, interior design, shop talk, facial hair, and correspondence.
The tone is eloquent, ironic, restrained, at times epistolary. Manners matter, yet taboo triumphs. Lives are condensed in such a way that movements become dreamlike. There are numerous brilliant, often very funny hard cuts between scenes that, though time has passed, almost make us feel Jung is walking from one scene that reveals his unresolved sexual urges to another in which his wife has just given birth. The performances are each beautifully calibrated and contained, and Fassbender—whose superb, erotically charged work is far better rewarded here than it was in Shame—is especially compelling in his transmission of the delicate balance of Jung’s repressed desires, colossal ambitions, and nervous urge toward the esoteric, perhaps as a way of coping with irreconcilable needs.
I spoke with Cronenberg last month about the film. We had but a brief window of time, yet he was, as always, generous, articulate and witty.
JB: For me, an especially memorable moment in your body of work is the opening scene of The Brood, a scene that, however unconventional or sinister the treatment being administered in it may be, could be read as suspicious of psychotherapy. Before this project came to you, did you feel any particular unease with psychoanalysis?
David Cronenberg: [Laughs] No. No particular wariness. I think every really interesting thing we create has a potential downside or dangerous aspect. Obviously, this movie is called A Dangerous Method, and it was considered so in its time because it was revolutionary, subversive and volatile. Freud was attacked for it. As he said when he came to America on the boat: “Don’t they realize we’re bringing them the plague?” [Laughs] He was acknowledging the fact that this new therapy was tricky. Things could have unforeseeable repercussions. In The Brood I’m just exaggerating that. It was never meant as a blanket critique of psychotherapy.
JB: I recall something David Lynch wrote once about trying out psychoanalysis. He came in, sat down and immediately asked the doctor if treatment would effect his creativity. The doctor said yes. Lynch said thanks, got up, and left. Do you feel there’s something in psychoanalysis that’s detrimental to creativity?
DC: I think it depends on what kind of artist you are. And what kind of therapist. Some psychotherapists who have writers or directors as clients like to get screenwriting credits.
DC: Its true. The therapist who said that to Lynch was probably feeling his oats, wanting to feel the power of analysis. But, you know, Woody Allen’s been in analysis for 40 years and he’s still pretty productive, so it really depends on the parties involved, how they interact. That’s one of the interesting things about analysis, it created a new kind of relationship. And it could be a complex, very difficult one. The boundaries always shift, because they’re contingent on the specific personalities of both analyst and patient. That’s why it can’t really be called a hard science, though Freud desperately wanted it to be. Hard science implies that an experiment can be repeated anywhere so long as you replicate the conditions. With human beings you can’t do this. We’re too slippery.
JB: Over the course of A Dangerous Method, Sabina Spielrein arguably emerges as an example of psychoanalysis’ capacity for self-betterment.
DC: Yes. As she says to Jung, “You cured me with his method.” Meaning Freud’s talking cure. The boundaries of psychoanalysis weren’t known—they were still inventing it. So you have to give Otto Gross a little credit here. He was a proto-hippy, questioning everything, and he was saying, “How do we know having sex with your patient is a bad thing?”
DC: It was a legitimate question. “What if it turns out to be a useful component of this new therapy we’re inventing?” Of course, now it’s illegal. But Gross really changed Jung’s way of thinking. He shook him out of his bourgeois patterns, and Jung was forever after an advocate of polygamy. He lived that way. He had a wife, but he also had a mistress for the rest of his life. It seemed to work for him. I don’t know about his wife, though she too became a psychoanalyst and didn’t leave him and was very productive. So who’s to say that, even as a patient who became a lover, Sabina was in fact victimized? As it turns out, she was no victim. She was their intellectual equal and went on to have her own career.
JB: Something I find especially intriguing about the film is the way that Jung and Spielrein seem to cross paths while on what are essentially reverse trajectories, the former moving from groundedness to deep disquiet, the latter from hysteria to groundedness. They share a peculiar kind of love story I think...
DC: That’s exactly right. A very good point...
JB: Which makes me think that there are actually a surprising number of love stories in your work. The Dead Zone, The Fly and Dead Ringers are constructed to some degree around people falling in love. Crash and History of Violence prominently feature long-term love that needs to be renegotiated.
DC: When I was a kid I read a book called The Allegory of Love, by C.S. Lewis, which suggested that romantic love was a relatively recent literary invention, that it had never existed in ancient Roman or Greek literature or art. Whatever you want to call it, it does seem to be a very powerful force. And yes, I think it’s in almost all my movies, though it’s not often acknowledged, perhaps because it’s very subtle.
JB: I think there’s an interesting piece of writing to be done on the subject.
DC: Well, you could do it.
JB: I’m going to look into that! ...In the meantime, I’m interested in the question of restraint in A Dangerous Method. Most of your films depict catalytic events that allow some level of chaos to unfurl, but here—as in History of Violence, and perhaps Spider—taboo or heretical urges are only allowed to manifest in very particular safe zones. In this case, the zones of therapy or secret sex.
DC: Repression is interesting. In Freud’s formula civilization is repression. For me, each movie is a unique creature and tells you what it needs. In this case what it needed was control, because the era that psychoanalysis came out of was one of great control. You see it in the Belvedere Gardens, so beautiful yet so manicured—the boundaries were unmistakable. It was an era in which everyone knew his place. There was not a lot of fluidity. A lot of stability, but not much spontaneity. So the tone of the movie comes from the characters and the era, even the clothes, the high, stiff collars, and so on. Hysteria, we might say, was a spontaneous outcry against this general repression. Particularly of women.
JB: I enjoyed the film’s many almost subliminal elements that invoke this air of psychic unease. I think of the zig-zag floors, for example.
DC: Much of which was taken from photographs of the era. Both Christopher Hampton and I felt that the more accurate we could be, the more neutral, without tilting things one way or the other, the more revealing it would be.
JB: This is, obviously, an unusually talky movie. Much drama emerges through things spoken. That must be exhilarating in its own, quiet way, to be able to craft a story in which the subconscious can be articulated without much contrivance.
DC: That was one of the attractions, absolutely. A lot of people say, “Wasn’t it too talky? Too theatrical?” But it was a screenplay before it was a play, and even there, the characters talked a lot. It was called The Talking Cure. I liked that. I think Christopher was worried that I might want to cut back on that for so-called cinematic reasons, but I assured him that that was what makes this script great. A face talking is the thing that we photograph most as directors. To me that’s not theatrical—it’s the essence of cinema. If you have a great face saying great things, you have a movie.