Monday, April 30, 2012

Review: A DANGEROUS METHOD: "Jung and easily froidened."

A young woman is taken kicking, screaming and laughing demoniacally into an ornate old building. It's 1906. She's not possessed. She's hysterical, according to the newborn science of psychoanalysis. A little later, twitching in a chair in a sunlit room she receives a visitor. He's young and pleasant mannered. "I'm Dr Jung," he says. "I thought we might just talk today."

So begins a triangle first professional intrigue and then ethics-breaching sexual compulsion as Jung nuts it out with the paternal Freud and Sabine the hopeful future doctor and mix it up like it's Saturday night. Jung becomes increasingly dissatisfied with the Moses of Vienna and wants to explore the imperceptible. Moses supposes neuroses are gnoses and knowses that the nascent science's already fragile hold on acceptance will only be weakened by such apparent charlatanry. The big splitteroo looms and happens. Psychoanalysis grows branches.

This is a film of threads rather than acts and while supported by sumptuous visuals is really all talk. Well, mostly talk. The mainstream sheen of this and the more recent Cronenberg films belies the treasures beyond the surface; it's subtle rather than bland.

Much of this must be conveyed by performances and we have a wealth of them. The progressively impressive Michael Fassbender brings the light to the eyes of Dr Jung that glows beneath the calm exterior of  his training as a respectable Swiss bourgeois. Viggo Mortensen, unrecognisable to the eye and ear, is Dr Freud of the LAW who feels the vulnerability of his age against the younger man's recklessness. Kiera Knightley lights up every scene she's in with the black flame of danger as her personal power increases.

She is also the deliverer of the sole typical Cronenberg moment in the film in the early scenes of Sabine's therapy. Whenever a memory approaches the pain threshold and she can't speak it her lower jaw shoots out transporting her from delicate beauty to eel-like ugliness. It's an extraordinary transformation achieved with no more than facial muscle but it expresses a kind of intimidating self-disgust and panic impossible to render in dialogue.

Two other performances I'll mention as a pair for they serve to illustrate the contrary forces tearing at Jung. Sarah Gadon (an ice and gold beauty so pale she's almost transparent) provides a Frau Jung whose external fragility belies the knowledge of her husband's wilfulness. Vincent Cassell is both unsettling and funny as the nihilistic libertine who says an effortless yes to every temptation. Anima and animus? Sure but also the rising western woman and man of the coming century.

So this is a good review, isn't it? Well, not entirely. Having established itself comfortably as a talky movie A Dangerous Method makes no scruple of talking well beyond its initial interest. The first of its one and a half hours transcends the natter fest by keeping everything we are witnessing intriguing. There's even a scene with a home made polygraph which looks so much like a Rube Goldberg contraption that I kept looking for a plastic mouse to fall into a bucket that dropped on to a scale that lifted a switch that ....  My problem is that, having established its points it just keeps them centre frame and replays them.

And then it ends. And then we get something I always wince at in films like this, a series of title cards revealing what happened to each character afterwards.

So, is this a good film? If the director's name were taken off the credits I wouldn't pick it but I'd think it was several notches above the average Hollywood biopic. We're asked to examine rather than be shocked at the sadomasochistic scenes. The performances are restrained rather than flat. There is a soggy lawn where most of the third act would be but there are indications that the creative team behind this movie wanted to do much more than play out the lives of historical figures. Still with the muddle of themes on screen father/son, science/esoterica, sex as both procreation and compulsion, etc etc, it's hard to discern the point.

There is no danger of this in the director's earlier work which was so steady and signature that his surname became an adjective for cinema of challenging ideas, mostly about human potential. Even when your old tv started going off and switching to noisy white static you could talk about a Cronenbergian experience you had the other day. These films endure because the ideas they contain have become surprisingly persistent over decades to the extent that they transcend any of the very early lapses in production standards or acting proficiency or anything deemed sneerworthy as low budget.

But since M. Butterfly, a blind spot in the career for even ardent fans, Cronenberg is perceived to have softened, lost flavour, joined the bottle of white you've had in the fridge for a week in going all watery. While Spider or Crash are roundly celebrated as real points of progress in Cronenberg's development towards subtlety, other films like Butterfly, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises almost universally disappoint. A Dangerous Method disappointed me but should it have? Should I really have been surprised by what I initially saw as a wasted opportunity of a powerfully visionary filmmaker to tackle psychoanalysis with his singular conceptual courage?

Let's look at a little context. I described the Cronenberg moment in this film a few pars up. It's extraordinary and  very few other directors would have allowed it through. Lynch, yes, but he wouldn't have allowed it the depth it gets to here. It's not just a weird moment with a facial contortion, it forces us to think about the character's past.

Wind back to the 70s film that no one wants to admit is Cronenberg's, Fast Company. It's a standard drive-in movie about formula one racers and their battle against the forces of evil big business. I used to give up even on reading the synopses of it as nothing among those spare words interested me. (I bought a copy finally as it was a two disc set which featured a pair of hitherto inaccessible early features: Stereo and Crimes of the Future.) But Fast Company has two moments in it that demand a place for the whole film alongside Shivers, Rabid, Scanners etc. The "funny cars" revving up with roars and screeches are like a small herd of terrifying alien animals, not machines. A group sex scene gets to the point of introducing thick black engine oil, not as a lube but as a kind of ritual ointment. Those are in the middle of a petrol-head movie.

The most mainstream early Cronenberg piece is also often overlooked: Dead Zone. It's an intriguing piece but very difficult to distinguish from any other early 80s sci-fi or horror. And yet there's that suicide scene with the scissors. No gore or violence on screen; it's just disturbingly ugly. And there's the sauna scene in Eastern Promises. The sex scenes in M. Butterfly and its Genet-like finale which pull it far from the conventional piece it otherwise is.

There's always Cronenberg in a Cronenberg film. By contrast, it can be a real challenge finding the director of Taxi Driver in almost any Scorsese film since Goodfellas. The only filmmaker Cronenberg feared to meet (it was mutual, btw), the cinematic infuser of Dante and Dostoyevsky with a Little Italy accent took the devil's shilling and the rest is just nuts and bolts craftsmanship. But a few seconds of undiluted Cronenberg to tell you he's still here, can lift even the soft descent of A Dangerous Method from a pure fall and give it a few momentary thrilling seconds of anti-gravity. Down but not out, he has his byline on another release this year, Cosmopolis. I'll be in line.

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