Of all the words in my vocabulary, I never thought I’d use “bland” to describe a film by David Cronenberg. One of the pioneers of the so-called body horror genre in the seventies and eighties, the Canadian director’s fascination with corporeal corruption led to the creation of such cult favourites as The Brood, Videodrome and his oozing masterpiece, The Fly. Admittedly, the new millennium saw a certain restraint – what some might call maturation – creep into his work, with films like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises increasingly focusing not just the physical, but also the psychological consequences of violence and bodily harm.
Even so, Cronenberg films have always possessed an inescapably perverse and affectingly visceral quality, ensuring that even when flawed, they never fail to challenge or leave a lasting impression. That is, up until now. The story of duelling psychoanalysts Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud at the dawn of the twentieth century, A Dangerous Method, adapted Christopher Hampton’s stage-play The Talking Cure, is without a doubt Cronenberg’s most reserved, “mature” and accessible work to date. Which is another way of saying it is his most forgettable, most unremarkable and yes, ultimately, his blandest.
It’s surprising, too, given that on the face of it, the source material – discussions of sexual repression, infidelity and sadomasochism – seems like a perfect fit for a director whose entire career has revolved around the link between sex, the body and the mind. But perhaps that is the problem. It’s simply discussion. Based on a play which is itself based on a non-fiction book, A Dangerous Method contains none of the kink or creepiness of Dead Ringers or the controversial Crash (not the Oscar winner). Instead, it’s little more than repetitious conversation – conversation that uncovers little new or titillating on the topics of sex, madness or the process of psychoanalysis.
When nineteen year old Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley; Never Let Me Go) is delivered screaming to the Burghölzli psychiatric hospital in Zurich, a young Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender; X-Men: First Class) sees it as an opportunity to test out radical new theories in the field of psychoanalysis. His so called “talking cure” leads to a dramatic improvement in his young Russian patient, and helps Jung garner the attention of his idol, the preeminent Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen; The Road). But what begins as a mentorship soon becomes a rivalry, as the two men clash over the theories, practices and politics of the psychoanalytical profession. At the same time, Sabinas new-found sexual liberation creates temptation for her straight-laced doctor that he may be unable to resist.
While I certainly don’t resent Cronenberg for attempting to expand his repertoire, the fact remains that A Dangerous Method resembles little more than a run-of-the-mill historical biopic, one where emotional rawness and sexual honesty is stifled by period formality and dreary dedication to historical accuracy. Fassbender is good although he’s been much better; his most impressive scenes are shared with the understated Mortensen, who is the best thing about the film, and not in it nearly enough. Their discussions – clipped and formal but tinged with a growing hostility – hint at professional rivalries and personal darkness’s that lurk beneath cool and collected facades.
But while the bond between Jung and Freud has some dramatic weight, the relationship between Jung and Sabina is never particularly compelling. The affair begins with a kind of forced inevitability, and their love scenes – which contain nothing more taboo than some light spanking – are neither confronting nor especially sexy. The only reason her character is memorable is because of Knightley’s jowl-thrusting, eye-bulging, limb-twitching performance. Take into account a Russian accent as thick as concrete, and her work is either brilliant or atrocious – I spent the entire film trying to make up my mind as to which. At the very least it’s distracting, a fault that lies at Cronenberg’s feet, not Knightley’s.
One does not leave A Dangerous Method feeling terribly outraged or offended. How could you? There’s so little to be outraged or offended by. Instead, it’s a deep sense of disappointment. For the first time ever, David Cronenberg has made a film that is not immediately identifiable as a David Cronenberg film. For me, that’s a tragedy. One can only imagine how much more remarkable it might have been had it been made ten, twenty, thirty years ago, when it’s maker would have dived head first into these taboo waters with unrepentent abandon and glee. Now, maturely, he merely flounders in the shallows.