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NYFF 2011: ‘A Dangerous Method’ showcases an uncomfortable biological essentialism

A Dangerous Method

Directed by David Cronenberg

Written by Christopher Hampton

2011, Canada

At the press conference immediately following a screening of David Cronenberg’s latest, A Dangerous Method, the director was asked how the film relates to the rest of his work. “I don’t really think about my other movies,” Cronenberg replied. It is a statement that is hard to accept on its face, if only because A Dangerous Method centers on the tumultuous relationship between Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, their mutual compatriot (and Jung’s patient/lover) Sabina Spielrein and the birth of psychoanalysis, and Cronenberg has spent a career defining his own twisted, fleshy take on psychology and materialism. From the sexual-revolution body horror of Shivers, to the algorithmic erotica of Crash, Cronenberg has been obsessed with how sex binds the body and psyche in terrifying, destructive, but also regenerative ways. At the press conference he even said – contradicting the earlier statement completely – that his first short, Transfer, was about a psychiatrist and a patient. It totally follows that Cronenberg would drawn to Freud and Jung as subjects.

A Dangerous Method is, however, among Cronenberg’s most problematic films. According to the filmmaker, he wanted his film to follow its source material, the stage play The Talking Cureby (who also wrote the screen adaptation), and approach the material neutrally, with no agenda but to feel passion for the ideas. But neutrality prevents the film from fully confronting the way its male protagonists divide the world into normality and difference, and lead Cronenberg into – for the first time, in my estimation – an uncomfortable biological essentialism.

The film is gorgeous, though, beautiful shot by Peter Suschitzky, with soft blues and warming glows that practically allow you to see the starch on the high collars of the suites and dresses. It at times seems as though every visual element has been arranged to demonstrate sexual repression, including the movement of the camera. Particularly in early scenes, we follow doctors and nurses as they walk brusquely up and down the halls of a hospital, the camera looking upon patients as they do, adopting their medical gaze that determines who is sick, who is well, and why.

The first face we see is one of female hysteria, Keira Knightley’s Sabina in a state of psychosis, being dragged unwillingly into Jung’s care. Knightley is astonishing, contorting her body in ways that express a deep psychic pain. Her hands twist themselves into claws, and her jaw juts out so far you are afraid it will pop out of its socket – a grotesque, monstrous vision fitting of Cronenberg’s pulpiest films. Along with Michael Fassbender’s Jung, we are fascinated by her, especially when she elicits the most unspeakably personal details of her life under the guise of the clinic.

It’s not that A Dangerous Method is oblivious to privileged position that Jung and Freud sit at in relation to Sabina (even as she becomes an accomplished analyst in her own right) and others that they analyze. The film lingers on Jung’s incredible intake of food, eating even as he discusses sphincter control and anal fixations, or the way Freud (the naturally superb Viggo Mortensen) is never far from a cigar in his mouth. Both men are creatures of enormous appetites and fixations that they sanction because they are their own. The problem is that as Jung wades into the darker waters of his sexuality with Sabina – the S&M nature of these scenes is disturbing for Knightley’s full committal and also because of the recent allegations that Fassbender brutally beat his former girlfriend, Sunawin Andrews – the film does not invert the normalizing gaze, but rather relocates it within the confines of traditional psychoanalytic thinking. Whether it is Freud’s rigid organization of the mind or Jung’s belief in a collective unconsciousness, A Dangerous Method ultimately sees mental freedom and self-realization in terms of accepting a supposedly natural order of gender submission and desire determined by one’s sex organs – a notion not much more appealing than the stodgy Victorianism it would seek to replace.

Currently at the New York Museum of Modern Art is the first major retrospective of William de Kooning’s paintings, drawings and sculpture in over a decade. The centerpiece of the exhibit is his five Woman paintings, large canvases that violently abstract the female figure into hideous, perverse, and yet arrestingly beautiful images. The paintings are troubling. Looking at them at them for a ridiculously long time on Monday, I was having trouble reconciling my attraction and revulsion to them. But the longer I looked at each, the more I was drawn every time to the massive eyes on the individual disfigured faces, staring straight back out. I gazed upon female monstrosity, and it gazed at me, aggressively returning the violence that viewer imposes on it. It is this reverberation of gazes that undercuts the potentially sexist content of the paintings, and it is that reverberation that A Dangerous Method is missing.

Louis Godfrey

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