Monday, February 06, 2012

Psychoanalysis and its Discontents

It wasn't until a couple of days after I saw it that I realized that David Cronenberg's new movie, A Dangerous Method (2011), is thematically similar to Dead Ringers. This shouldn't surprise me, really. Cronenberg has the most instantly recognizable private universe of any major director, after all, and it's not like he ever throws anything away. It's just that while I was watching the movie, mentally cataloging the Cronenbergian hallmarks, I missed some of the film's bigger concerns. It's an interestingly queer movie, though that, too, is subliminal. I'm not entirely sure what I think of it, actually, though my first impulse as I left the theater was that it was a lesser film. It doesn't have the ferocity--for want of a better word--of Cronenberg's best work. It's not necessarily that it's non-violent so much as it is unfocused. I wasn't sure what the aim of the movie was. Most Cronenberg movies act on me like a slap in the face, and in past years, I've left the theater with my face burning. This film doesn't do that. Maybe it's too genteel.

A Dangerous Method is ostensibly about the birth of psychoanalysis and the schism between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. It centers around Jung's implementation of the "talking cure" while treating Sabina Spielrein, a woman suffering from hysteria (in the classical sense of the word). Sabina's neurosis, it seems, is a manifestation of an Elektra complex overlayered with a salting of masochism. Jung's work with the talking cure brings him to the attention of Freud, who sees in Jung a successor to his own work. Freud sends Jung one of his own patients, Dr. Otto Gross, whose philosophy of life is one of unrestraint. If Freud is the ego of the movie, and if Jung is the superego, then Gross is the id, and his raging id colonizes Jung. As Gross's worldview seeps into his own, Jung embarks on an affair with Sabina, complete with erotic spanking. But Jung never fully embraces this, just as he never fully embraces Freud. His refusal to defer to Freud, his insistence on investigating parapsychology, drives a wedge between the two men, a wedge exacerbated by their mutual relationships with Sabina. Sabina, who over the course of the movie becomes a psychiatrist herself, may give herself to Jung, but she sides with Freud in intellectual matters. The film ends with all parties estranged from each other.

This is another of Cronenberg's "brother" narratives (a fact underlined by the presence of Viggo Mortensen and Vincent Cassell, the "brothers" from Cronenberg's last film), though this is figurative in this film rather than literal. Freud is the elder brother, Jung the younger. As in Dead Ringers, the rift between the brothers is forced by raging female sexuality. Cronenberg has always found a measure of horror in female sexuality, and that certainly forms the core of A Dangerous Method. Kiera Knightly is a special effect unto herself as Sabina, contorting her face and body into interesting shapes as a result of her repressed sexual urges. The flip side of this is Jung's wife, Emma (Sarah Gaddon), whose hold on Jung comes from her children. Jung shares the director's usual vision of childbirth, which is horrifying at best and limiting at its most benign. Emma is purely a physical presence.

The film has gained a certain amount of notoriety for its scenes of Michael Fassbender spanking Kiera Knightley during their sex scenes, and there's a certain subversive joy to be had in placing these scenes in a movie that is otherwise a staid costume drama. Knightley is more effective in the scenes of psychoanalysis, where she gives herself full license to devour the scenery. The kink later in the film acts as a kind of catharsis. Michael Fassbender's Jung, by contrast, is almost stoic. These scenes reminded me of the therapy scenes in The Brood, but where Oliver Reed's Dr. Ragland is all raging id himself and where the scenes themselves end in catharsis, Jung seems like more of a passive observer. The catharsis comes from other sources.

Whatever I may think of the movie's themes, the craft of the film is beyond reproach. It's beautifully filmed by Cronenberg's longtime collaborators (most notably cinematographer Peter Suschitzky), but it doesn't look like a Cronenberg film, really. There's a difference in the light of the film that probably stems from the fact that it was filmed in Austria and Germany rather than the director's usual haunts in Canada. While the light is different, some of the shot framings are typically Cronenbergian, particularly the diopter shots used in the conversations between Freud and Jung, and in the sex scenes in which the camera observes from a distance and often from another room. These shots are reminiscence of the viewpoint of a scientist observing what is happening from a dispassionate viewpoint. As a personal side note, every time I see Kiera Knightley in a corset, I flash on the gag from the first Pirates movie, but I also wonder why she even needs it, given the actress's famously thin figure. But then, this is the only instance of the director's body mod aesthetic, so why grouse, eh?

I think my own ambivalence to the film stems from the conflict between Freud's strict rationalism and Jung's mysticism. Cronenberg has described himself as a strict existentialist, so he is naturally sympathetic to Freud's point of view. But the center of the film is Jung, whose views are antithetical to the director's own worldview. Fidelity to Jung himself--which is necessary in a film trumpeted as a true story--impedes the director's ability to articulate his own themes. You can totally see those themes if you look, but they're muffled by the narrative. This results in a film that is stolid and respectable in spite of the kink. And, really, a film this kinky should never be stolid and respectable.

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