What Lies BENEATH

By Bowen, Peter | Filmmaker, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

What Lies BENEATH


Bowen, Peter, Filmmaker


Assisted by screenwriter and playwright Christopher Hampton, David Cronenberg's A DANGEROUS METHOD delves into the birth of psychoanalysis with an obsessive attention to detail and stellar performances by Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortensen and Keira Knightley.

David Cronenberg's new film A Dangerous Method is a period piece dealing with the personal and historical relationship between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly). It's a work that in some ways feels out of place in the Canadian filmmaker's filmography, and in other ways, perfectly Cronenbergian. The screenplay by Christopher Hampton (who also penned a stage play from which this was developed) is meticulously stitched together from volumes of actual correspondence, case histories and journalistic reports, as well as from John Kerr's 1994 book, A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, & Sabina Spielrein. Set in turn-of-the-century Vienna and Zurich, the drama unfolds with an elegant and formal finish that feels distinctly remote from Cronenberg's sometimes-messy cinematic universe. But as with Freud's theories of the unconscious, it's what roils just beneath the surface that counts. There the film percolates with intimations of insanity, violence, sexual desire and morbid obsession - the stuff we've all come to expect and love from Cronenberg.

The story, which spans over a decade, begins in 1904 with the decision by a 29-year-old Jung to adopt the theories of Freud in treating an 18-year-old Russian émigré, Spielrein, for hysteria. The success of Freud's famous "talking cure" on the young woman not only bonded Jung with his mentor, but also freed the brilliant Spielrein from mental illness enough to let her embark on her dream of becoming a psychiatrist. But in a world where every action is a symptom, every good deed possibly repressed anger, the growing affections of the three cast a tangled web. Jung and Spielrein's doctor/patient relationship turns into a sexual S&M affair. Freud and Jung's intellectual mentorship threatens to fulfill the Oedipal prophecy underlying Freud's own theory. And Spielrein, the patient and student, proposes psychoanalytic theories that challenge both Freud and Jung's paternal hegemony. In short, the three make for a Cronenberg family drama.

If Cronenberg's films, especially many of his early ones, are celebrated for allowing the repressed to not only return but run rabid, A Dangerous Method allows Cronenberg to revisit the historical origins of repression. And as such, the director focuses obsessively on the historical veneer, working with production designers Carol Spier and James McAteer to duplicate the look and feel of Freud's Vienna and Jung's Zurich, and with his sister, costume designer Denise Cronenberg, to showcase the corseted and starched fashions of the time. The production team even analyzed in detail the handwriting techniques and preferred pens of each of the three main characters. And if the effect of this historical veracity is to produce a museum-quality production, it also makes in a strange way visible everything that is unseen in the film - all that is repressed and rendered abject.

Sony Pictures Classics opens the film in November.

You call this film an "intellectual ménage à trois," a phrase that seems to capture its mix of erotic tension and ideological gamesmanship. These three central characters are those whose ideas would transform the 20th century. Having worked through all this material to develop the film, what did you finally think was at stake for them? I think it was different for each one. Obviously Sabina, starting off as a patient who was basically disabled by her mental state, which technically at the time was called hysteria - the stakes for her were quite different. For her it was a matter of survival and sanity. And then, of course, as she gradually began to realize her own potential, the stakes shifted because she was a woman in what was a very repressive era for women.

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