COVER STORY: Canadian Film 2012 preview w/ David CronenbergCanada’s actors, writers and directors fare well enough in the court of public perception, but too often our films are dismissed as either too highbrow, too dull, too weird or, simply, too Canadian. What does that mean? Well, in 2012, it means a potential Academy Award winner (David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method), a Variety magazine “one to watch” screenwriter (actor/writer Jay Baruchel’s debut, Goon) and an indie darling on the festival circuit (Carl Bessai’s Sisters&Brothers). Get thee to a movie theatre!
Filmmaker David Cronenberg has built an art-house reputation for being the thinking man’s perverse subversive. His weirdest, kinkiest or most disturbingly vicious movies — The Fly, Crash, A History of Violence — have, at their core, an almost obsessive interest in exploring human psychology. Cronenberg admits that his lifelong fascination with the subject isn’t so much about understanding ‘why?’, but in asking ‘why not?’ Much the way the founders of psychoanalysis, doctors Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, do in Cronenberg’s new film, A Dangerous Method, which opens this Friday, Jan.13.
“Someone pointed out to me — I had actually forgotten — that my very first film was a seven-minute short called Transfer, which was about a patient and a psychiatrist, and that was before I made any other fiction films!” Cronenberg laughs, over the phone from his homebase of Toronto. “It’s a very fascinating, strange relationship, which we sort of now take for granted and have absorbed into being a kind of standard human interaction.”
But of course, that wasn’t always the case. Set at the turn of the last century, A Dangerous Method, based on Christopher Hampton’s play, The Talking Cure (itself based on John Kerr’s non-fiction book, A Most Dangerous Method: the story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein) focuses on the push-pull between Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Jung (Michael Fassbender), both respected doctors attempting to cultivate dramatic breakthroughs via talk therapy. Their relationship devolves from that of a father/son, mentor/mentee to bitterly disappointed former friends. The catalyst of their dissolution is Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), Jung’s patient with whom he embarks on an sado-masochistic affair, and who eventually becomes Freud’s patient, protegee and one of the first female psychoanalysts.
“This is at the moment of the invention of psychoanalysis that we’re seeing in the movie,” Cronenberg says. “The boundaries were not at all well established. You can even make a case for Otto Gross [Jung’s colleague] saying, ‘Well, why should we assume having sex with our patients is a bad thing? Maybe it’s a good thing. Maybe under the terms of psychoanalysis, maybe it can work under certain circumstances.’ The ethical boundaries and therapeutic boundaries were not at all established, it was all up for grabs and was all being invented at the time.”
Jung’s patient-turned-lover, Spielrein, could be considered one of the guinea pigs of the ethics of psychoanalysis. Fittingly, it’s her story — and the critical response to Knightley’s portrayal — that proves most compelling after the credits roll.
The film opens with a lengthy sequence in which a hysterical Spielrein is forcibly institutionalized. It’s an overwhelmingly physical performance. Knightley’s jaw is practically dislocated by fierce facial tics, her body contorted as she convulses. Contrary to the advertising campaign’s depiction, Knightley’s Speilrien isn’t just a mentally ill seductress; she’s a woman stifled by expectation, attempting to grapple with the intense shame of repressed sexuality. Or, as it was once known, hysteria.
“Women were worshipped as goddesses, in the Victorian style, and put on a pedestal, but that’s not really a great place for a human being to be,” Cronenberg says. “You were worshipped, but you weren’t supposed to have a sex life. You weren’t supposed to have an intellect. Sabina was speaking these unspeakable things, saying things that no one has ever asked her to articulate before, this is the talking cure after all. A young woman, coming from a wealthy family, of a certain class, saying she’s sexually aroused by her father beating her to the point that she masturbates. She could not let these things out of her mouth, but she desperately wants to. That’s where the facial deformity comes from, that she’s trying to speak, but she wants to deform the words, or pull them back into her throat, literally.”
But rather than applaud the young actress, critics have been largely derisive, calling her performance over-the-top and clumsy. One can’t help but wonder: if it had been Daniel Day Lewis giving that performance, wouldn’t there be Oscar talk already?
“I completely agree with you,” Cronenberg says. “All of that talk is just loony. Keira could have dialed it up or down anyway I asked her to, but we both decided we needed to show accurately — because the movie is very accurate, actually, on every level. We had to show what hysteria was. What did they expect? Sabina’s particular version of hysteria was well-documented by Jung himself. There were 50 pages of it, with Jung’s handwriting in the margins, talking about how her face was ravaged by tics and distortions and contortions and deformities and stuff. It’s all very accurate. She couldn’t just sit there and be mildly neurotic, because that’s not what hysteria was. She was completely dysfunctional when they brought her there. That’s why her parents were willing to institutionalize her, so it has to be shown. It was completely accurate.”