Monday, October 24, 2011

Love: A Dangerous Method (Notes from the Chicago International Film Festival)

October is always a busy month around these parts, and November isn’t much better. It seems that lately we can’t get through the fall without all hell breaking loose (in the best way, I suppose), but somehow I always manage to sneak in a movie or two at the annual Chicago International Film Festival. This year, it had been my intention to spend a few days camped in the AMC multiplex the fest calls home. I had big plans to check out whatever the schedule offered me, and to take in more than the usual dose or two of ‘special presentations.’ Work, weddings, and travels out of town interfered with that goal, but fortunately I still took in a couple worthwhile screenings. Next year, maybe I’ll take a few days off. Next year, maybe they’ll update that god awful intro reel (I’m looking at you, Columbia College). Next year, maybe I’ll have time to border jump over to TIFF. Next year, next year, next year. For now, though, episode one: on Cronenberg.
When the end credits began to roll on A Dangerous Method, my gut reaction came in the form of a bad pun:  that Method?  Not so Dangerous.   What I’d watched had felt less David Cronenberg, more Merchant Ivory; a lovely period piece lightly infused with just a touch of sado-masochism.  It’s funny, because before watching the film I felt I knew exactly why a director like Cronenberg would be interested in the story of Carl Jung and Sabina Spielrein.  The version I’d been told was an embellished drama of adultery, insanity, and perversion.  Sabina was made out to be a torrid sort of enchantress, a manic, hysteric genius with an insatiable sexual appetite who so fascinated Jung and his mentor, Sigmund Freud, that an irreparable rift was created between them.   In this telling, I could have sworn Sabina was rumored to have taken each of the doctors as lovers, though we know Freud was famously distant from his patients.   
       Repeating my version now, the details of Sabina’s life ring as blatantly misogynist, the sort of rhetoric that men in the early 1900’s might use to describe such a character, but which today feels cringe-worthy, as if Spielrein is to be blamed for the sexual impulses of the very married Jung.  Still, the fact remains that Spielrein and Jung did indeed carry out an affair under his tutelage, that she was indeed committed, and that she did make the rather amazing transition from volatile, mud-coated patient to composed psychoanalyst herself.   If I were David Cronenberg I’d look at Sabina Spielrein and see a story rife with perversion and psychosexual intrigue.  She’s split, obsessed with her impulses and in love with the idea of fulfilling them even as she struggles against them.   Cronenberg, the man responsible for Dead Ringers, Crash, and Videodrome should be able to ace a reimagining of her story with both hands behind his back.   In certain ways, he does.  A Dangerous Method is a fine film with rich, wonderful performances.  It’s just, well, it feels like a boiling down of a simple historical fact instead of a building up into an intrigue.   Let me be amongst the first to admit it:  if I’d gone into this blindly, with not a clue as to who had directed this film, I’d never have attached this to David Cronenberg.  Joe Wright or Cary Fukunaga, maybe, but Cronenberg?  No way.
 We get the sense that Jung’s ‘Talking Cure’ may have been a dangerous method in practice.  In his own life, taking up with the seizing, screaming, snapping Sabina is certainly a risk to his livelihood.  Jung (here played by our man Michael Fassbender) is married and funded by his aristocratic wife (Sarah Gadon).  He depends on her, having no money of his own.  Sabina (Keira Knightley) is the perfect guinea pig, but unfortunately also an irresistible partner for a man so clearly frustrated by his own, suffering wife.  How could someone so intellectually curious not fall for someone who mirrors his own ways, who fascinates him as a subject even as she meets him in discussing the research surrounding her own condition?  It’s shrinky dink kismet, or something.  The film gives us a bit of the sense that all of this is a personal risk.  Jung is clearly taking chances in letting his own libido win out over his bourgeois morals.  Jung spends hours shooting the psychological shit with family man Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and while it’s interesting to see where their bromantic study buddy relationship slowly begins to diverge, the film doesn’t seem to follow through on digging in to the real meat of the story.  It resists, at all costs, a tabloid rendition of its intrigue.  While in certain ways I feel there’s something quite respectable about this, I couldn’t escape the thought that so much of the film became more iteration than dramatization.  
While our tale is something of a bodice ripper featuring adulterous teacher/student relationships and spankings, somehow it feels textbook tame.   At some point in the telling, A Dangerous Method  becomes incredibly generic, an occasionally comic history lesson without, oddly, much of that tension-loaded Cronenbergian dread.   It’s literary.  It’s historical.  It’s coming close to being pretty damn academic, on the whole.  Yet, for a film spun on dialogue, neurosis, and sex drive; it left me a little cold.  While Jung may be feeling the pressure, there appears to be no real risk for the viewer and therefore, in a way, no real potential payoff.  What we have instead is a big turn of the century tableaux for academic chatter.   A better title might be “A Risky Method” or “A Method Which Could Result in an Uncomfortable Situation” or maybe just “Sigmund Will be Disappointed.”  I’d be curious to see the film again and to find out if any of the underwhelming ends gain power with a repeat viewing.
Regardless of story, there are some undeniably strong performances here.  A Dangerous Method is beautifully cast.  The oh-so-Teutonic Fassbender (aka: actor of the year) puts in a good showing as the cautious Jung.  Wrapped up with him in a quiet battle of egos is Mortensen’s take on Freud; charmingly conservative and provided with enough sharp lines to make him more than a mere cigar.  Vincent Cassel drops by in a solidly humorous performance as Otto Gross, an id-riddled disciple of Freud who grants Jung the permission to pursue sexual liberation and the taking of as many mistresses as possible.  It's too brief, but certainly memorable.  The star here, though, is Sabina herself.  In the role of our brilliant/insane/deviant alt-heroine, Keira Knightley gives Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers a run for her money.  Her performance is raw physicality and blunt, almost Aspergian rage.  She speaks in bursts of uncontrollable volume.  With a heavy Russian accent she spits, stutters, contorts her skeletal frame and juts her jaw in a way that’s superbly unhinged.  Not long after she's dragged in kicking and screaming, Knightley delivers the sort of panicked monologue actors will be mimicking in auditions for years to come.  She pulls it off, all facial tics and unbearable pauses.  You'll want to shake her, but even so it's incredibly impressive.  See it for her.


  1. looks like a beautiful film, I didnt go to ANY of the CFF because it got SO EXPENSIVE THIS YEAR

  2. It's always kind of pricey. The thing I don't get is that this year they instituted a fee for will-call pickup and not mail...which totally upped the price of my tickets since it reversed the logic of EVERY OTHER YEAR I'VE GONE. What the hell?


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