Friday, August 31, 2012

A Dangerous Method

The only reason I wanted to see A Dangerous Method is because it was made by David Cronenberg.  I don't know or care much about psychology.  I am liking Michael Fassbender's work so far, but Viggo Mortensen is pretty hit-and-miss for me and Keira Knightley generally stars in the film adaptations of books I never wanted to read.  Cronenberg, though, is always (in my experience) interesting as a filmmaker, at the very least.  I was a little hesitant to see A Dangerous Method, though.  I just had difficulty seeing the promise of a Cronenberg movie that was fenced in by actual historical figures and facts.  That practically guarantees a lack of head explosions, and what's the fun in that?
A Dangerous Method centers around Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), one of the first and foremost trailblazers in psychoanalysis.  Young, married, and Fassbendery, Dr. Jung is at the cutting edge of his profession, back when Freud's ideas were still new and radical.  Jung took a particular interest in his patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley).  When she came to him, Sabina was defiant, afraid, and spastic.
And, apparently, born the same way as Uruk-Hai
In other words, she was a perfect test subject for psychoanalysis.  Jung is able to treat Sabina so that she no longer covers herself in feces and throws unreasonable tantrums.  Through the course of treatment, Jung learns quite a bit about Sabina; he learns that she is extremely intelligent, understands psychoanalysis, and has a spanking fetish.  While it may be hasty to call her "cured"...
Fingernail biting: the final obstacle to sanity
...Jung decided that Sabina was capable of living a normal life and encourages her to study to become a doctor, like him.  Around this time, Jung is invited to a meeting of the foremost minds in psychoanalysis, where he meets his idol, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen).  Freud recognizes Carl's brilliance and takes Jung under his wing, as his heir apparent.  Jung has his doubts about the absolute nature of Freud's theories --- is everything about sex? --- but keeps those thoughts to himself.
Like Freud's ridiculous "Beard Theory."  Pah!  Mustaches are the future!
As Jung's fame grows, so does Sabina's insight.  As a successful patient as well as a successful psychoanalyst, her thoughts are often clever and unique.  As she and Jung develop their professional relationship, however, it becomes apparent that Sabina is very attracted to Jung.  Obviously, this is a case of transference.  But what's a little transference between friends?
Spanky, spanky!
Their romantic relationship complicates things.  On a personal level, Jung has a wife whom he feels morally responsible for (and who is extremely wealthy), even if he does not share a deep connection with her.  He is magnetically attracted to Sabina, physically and intellectually, but he does not want to give her the love child she craves.  On a professional level, Sabina could easily make their relationship public knowledge and discredit Jung with the rest of Freud's faithful.  Jung's increasingly vocal criticisms of Freud's refusal to change his theories even a little also threatens his status as Freud's heir apparent.  Oh, Carl Jung --- you so crazy!
Relax --- it's just an expression

The acting in A Dangerous Method is quite good.  Viggo Mortensen, in particular, was both charming and compelling as Sigmund Freud.  Michael Fassbender gave an interesting performance as a cold, calculating man that could not deny his passion.  Keira Knightley, when she wasn't doing an impression of a mentally ill person, was good as a needy, manipulative temptress.
"I want you to word associate me so hard...!"
In the beginning of the film, though, Knightley's craziness was unintentionally funny.  I'm sure she did her research, and that Sabina Spielrein really did have some crazy spastic movements.  I'm just not 100% certain that the best way to convey that illness is jutting out your jaw, like it's trying to escape your face.  I will say that this is the best Tasmanian Devil impression I have seen on the big screen.  It was a complex role, and she nailed the dramatic parts --- she just seemed silly when she played "crazy."  Vincent Cassel was good as the intelligent (but unrepentantly lusty) Dr. Otto Gross, who provides one of the explanations for the film's title.  Cassel is at his best when he is doing dirty, dirty, things, and that's what Gross was all about.
Dr. Gross, with his 1 o'clock appointment
The only other cast member worth mentioning is Sarah Gadon, who played Mrs. Jung.  Hers was a small part, but she conveyed the repressed emotions of her character well.

David Cronenberg's direction in A Dangerous Method was not as impressive as the acting.  I genuinely liked how well he developed the characters and how the actors were directed.  However, it is up to the director to take that and make it into something compelling, if not simply entertaining.  Simply put, this is a dull movie.  The most dramatic moments come when characters are reading letters.  It is so boring, in fact, that the novelty of Fassbender and Knightley's bondage and spanking scenes barely breaks the monotony.  For the record, I have no problem (in theory) with a slow-paced film.
Dramatic pause sip your tea
I do not, however, have much tolerance for being bored.  It is not the pacing that is at fault, though.  The larger problem of A Dangerous Method is the story focus.  The conflict between Jung and Freud was interesting, as was the forbidden romance of Carl and Sabina.  Unfortunately, this script split the story's focus between those two plots.  Either one could have made for a compelling film, but there isn't room for both to be represented equally.  Instead of a compelling drama about either relationship, we get what amounts to a Carl Jung biopic.  Biopics are not my favorite film genre, but if anyone can spice up the traditionally predictable biopic structure, it would be David Cronenberg.  He likes to make films with cool characters and unusual imagery, and that is exactly what is needed for an interesting biopic.  Instead, we get a haggard-looking Keira Knightley in an ill-fitting bodice.
Knightley is a size zero, so that makes her clothes...size -2?
While I believe that Michael Fassbender did a very good job as the subtle, reserved Carl Jung, he simply is not very compelling as a main character.  We don't see his actions as interesting or dynamic --- heck, we don't see him taking action.  There are just conversations, followed by letters, followed by reply letters, followed by conversations.  Period piece dramas don't have to be dull, but A Dangerous Method is not a movie I would use to prove that point.  Good acting can only take a movie so far without a plot that makes you care about the characters.

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