Saturday, 19 November 2011

“I could have damaged you far worse than I did; I chose not to.”

A Dangerous Method: directed by David Cronenberg; written by Christopher Hampton

I could not help but chuckle when I realised that A Dangerous Method was an adaptation of Hampton’s play The Talking Cure. Had Cronenberg and company kept the title for the cinematic adaptation I imagine that critics would have gone wild with the chances to create a pun on title because what immediately stands out about A Dangerous Method is how devoted to telling and not showing it is. Its opening suggests otherwise. A screaming woman on the brink of something akin to lunacy, it would seem, is the first image we are presented with. This woman is Sabina Spielrein, one of the first female psychoanalysts and someone to whom everyone with an S&M complex probably owes something to. This is not a film about S&M, though (le sigh) but a story about Carl Jung, Sabina’s psychiatrist and his eventual lover and the way – at least, according the film – she severed the relationship Jung had with Freud, his teacher.
This is as good a time as any to say that I’m actually a “talk-y” person. I feel no necessity in films depending particularly much on the physical and even though film is a visual medium sometimes telling is more effective than showing (see: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). The word psychoanalyst is something of a portmanteau – it necessitates the psychosis as well as the analysis and A Dangerous Method reveals itself to be sparse on the former and heavy on the latter; and, perhaps, not even that for the film is most notable as a dissertation on Jung’s relationship with those around him – particular Sabina. Since that relationship is rooted in the illicit sexual liaison of doctor and patient, the film takes on the appearance of a love story of some sort. Hampton’s screenplay, as is typical of him, is an intelligent. Still, even though it never enters the realm of stream-of-consciousness it does bear some resemblance to a psychiatrist session with constant words seeming to move nowhere. Do not mistake me, Hampton is crafty and he avoids the trappings of the standard biopic. But, following the line of the development there is an almost jarring lack of conflict in and of itself. He is not a slave to the film’s historical context, but he’s overly involved in the machinations.

Even with these issues there is the suggestion that the script could have resulted in a very good film instead of just a good one, and it is Cronenberg’s direction which is most perplexing. Hampton’s screenplay lacks his usual bite, yet Cronenberg who shows his diversity in style here presents a film beautiful to look at but curiously antiseptic in its staging. There is nothing inherently bad about the lush presentation of the film, but there seems to be a palpable indication of Cronenberg being overly restrained which imbues the film with a sedateness that comes off as unnaturally placid, especially when considering the scope of its subject. The pieces fit together too easily, and without fracas, for the development to be completely natural.
With such placidity emanating from the writer and director, A Dangerous Method becomes, perhaps by default, an actors’ film. I would have loved to see Jung as played by Ralph Fiennes as it was on the stage(following his work in Jane Eyre Fassbender seems inclined to take on as many Fiennes-like roles as possible) but Fassbender does a more than credible job. It’s an overwhelmingly reticent role to play, and reticence is difficult to establish without turgidity. And, admittedly, this reticence keeps the audience at arm’s length as to his inclinations as a protagonist. Ultimately it works, when with a protracted shot of him brooding functions as the film’s final shot. And, he doesn’t have half as difficult a job as Keira who is forced to move from histrionic to infatuated then scholastic in an hour and a half. She’s always been – to me – an overly criticised performer and she eschews any hint of affectation turning in a performance that is as brave as it is effective. The result is an uncomfortable performance, which I realised halfway was not a fault of Keira’s interpretation but evidence of how effective. It functions expressly as a performance to be observed, and I don’t doubt that the masses will be split down the middle as to its success.

Structurally, every outside of the central love story causes the film to lag just a little. In reality, it is a bit different especially when Vincent Cassell and Viggo Mortensen offer up such fine performances. Cassell’s Otto Gross enters the film for a short period in the middle and delivers excellently, and even as his presence reveals itself to be something superfluous the performance is anything but. The presence of Freud is less incidental, but Hampton does not fare well in tying all the strands of his drama together sometimes rendering Freud’s presence as just a bit too much of happenstance. Mortensen, unusually stoic here, is exceptional. It is not my favourite performance of the film, but it is does reveal itself as the most organic even as the narrative forgets him for too long and sometimes seems unable to use him to the best effect.
It’s all indicative of the slight tendency the film has to scratch the surface, dig deeper momentarily, but ultimately fail to completely excavate. With such a subject at hand the audience cannot help but anticipate something which exhumes more than the drama does. Even the two sex scenes seem to pervade with much too much refinement to completely succeed. What we have, then, is a good film which is beautiful to look at but teases us with damage when it only gives us vignettes. And, ultimately, it is not an inherent flaw for with such a wide scope I could imagine a gamut of situation where an adaptation could have been terrible. And, I imagine that Hampton and Cronenberg aim to make the issues as urbane as possible and although I do appreciate the machinations of the posh on cinema it does not completely succeed here. Almost, but not quite

upgraded to B upon reviewing


TomS said...

Interesting review! The subject matter of "Dangerous Method" is still a dangerous one on American screens. Brutality is acceptable unless it results in sexual heat. I am intrigued by this film, and am worried that its depictions of physical abuse risk seeming absurd. I didn't get that impression from your review, so I am still curious to seee the movie. Besides, Michael Fassbender is awesome...and along with "Shame" on screens at the same time, he could be the hottest actor of the year.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

tom i still want to like fassbender more than i do, he's good but he doesn't particularly make me excited. i'm looking forward to shame, though, particularly for the lovely carey mulligan.

Paolo said...

I actually thought that this was Fassy's worst performance but that's like saying the worst Michelangelo or something. Anyway I love how you point out the movie's flaws that I somehow forgot, one being Carl being an unapproachable and almost unsympathetic protagonist. The only thing that's stopping him is this stubbornness towards dealing with both Sabina and Sigmund (having a hard time calling them Carl and Sigmund by the way lol).

It's one of those movies where I remember the beginning and end and wonder 'How do these people hate each other again? Were the stakes that low?' But it decides for them to drift apart - a more realistic trend - as opposed to have a really big showdown.

And they make Sabina's role in their rift important but she could have been a femme fatale (John Kerr's book even puts that theory in the air) but the movie doesn't do that. Which I really admire.