Oct 7, 2011

NYFF 2011: A Dangerous Method

Any movie that boasts of Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender and Vincent Cassel in it, I don't care if it's good or bad, I'm there.  Any movie that casts them as Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Otto Gross, and is directed by David Cronenberg with a screenplay by Christopher Hampton, sounds quite promising. Unfortunately, A Dangerous Method is interesting but rather lifeless, like an impressive specimen pinned to a glass case. There is a lot of telling, and little showing. This tends to happen in biopics of great historical characters, but one does not expect it to happen in a movie by David Cronenberg, a director with a healthy, perverse penchant for the messiness of life. The characters talk in big ideas, and the movie feels stiff and  antiseptic, too much inside its own brain, even it deals with human passions that defy reason.
The story is fascinating: Sabina Spielrein, a wildly hysterical Russian Jewish woman, (Keira Knightley), is committed to the Swiss mental hospital where Carl Jung is starting to use Freud's "talking cure". Hers is a textbook case of quaint hysteria: she juts her jaw out, acts up a frenzy, laughs and cries at the same time, and seems possessed by demons, because she gets sexually excited when her father beats her up. In short, a masochist. I wonder whatever happened to hysteria? Women like that today, if they exist, either fuck their demons out or they become workaholics. But poor Sabina, trapped at the turn of the 20th Century, surrounded by nothing but disapproving male authority figures, is gripped by suffering.
Jung takes a keen interest on her and helps her out, even allowing her to assist him in his experiments with free association. She turns out to be very adept at analyzing other people's psyches, including his. They have an affair. Jung is married to a very wealthy woman who keeps having his children. As played by Michael Fassbender, he is quite an iceberg. Fastidious, self-important, aloof, controlled. There is one scene that hints at Jung having big appetites, but Fassbender's performance, even in the throes of passion, seems one-dimensional. The words tell us that he thought differently, but we don't see how a prig like Jung could be such an imaginative and fertile thinker. It's hard to reconcile Fassbender's clipped characterization, no doubt based on lots of research, to the man who created the Red Book and all those fascinating theories like the collective unconscious, synchronicity, and more, which greatly expanded upon and departed from the philosophy of Freud, his mentor.
Viggo Mortensen fares much better with his portrayal of Freud. I totally believed his intelligence, his natural authority, his recognition of himself as a guru, his strong paternal aura and I even felt a Jewish heimishness, a recognizable warmth, exuding from him. He is excellent. Vincent Cassel is also charismatic as deranged Freud pupil and uncompromising hedonist Otto Gross, a dangerous seducer, who goads Jung into unleashing himself and giving in to his desire for Sabina.
This movie is about mind games being played by the people who invented a system to decode them. Freud is the father figure the lovers seek approval from and whom they fear. When Jung wants to end the affair, Sabina emotionally blackmails him by telling all to Freud and threatening to become his patient. This drives Jung crazy.
One aspect of the movie I really liked was the fastidiousness of period detail, the limpid, warm cinematography by Peter Suchitzky, the starched collars and stiff vests of the men, the virginal white lace dresses of the women. It was another time, and it took Freud and Jung to shake off those constraints and turn us into modern people.
We now live at our own turn of a century of neuroscience which has mostly abandoned Freudian psychoanalysis, even if it is still highly culturally influential. Some of his ideas today seem overly male-oriented (penis envy?), some quaint, but he changed the course of human society for the better and it is interesting to revisit his contributions in the light of what we believe now.

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