Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Dangerous Method Review

By Francisco Salazar

Sex and repression dominate David Cronenberg's latest foray. A Dangerous Method tells the story of the turbulent relationships between psychiatrist Carl Jung, his mentor Sigmund Freud, and Sabina Spielrein, the troubled woman that comes between the two of them. The title of the film suggests a film that is both risky and sexually charged. Coming from Cronenberg who has brought such edgier sexually driven films such as "Crash" one expects a visually stylish and provoking film.

However what Cronenberg brings is a highly experimental film that relies more on dialogue than visuals. The script written by Christopher Hampton (Atonement), based on his play "A Talking Cure" and the book by John Kerr "A Most Dangerous Method", is chaotic at times as it cuts from one scene to the next with no sense of transition. When there is a transition from event to event it is usually in the form of a voiceover reading letters exchanged by characters. In addition, the script never gives space for the audience to see the sexual tension between Spielrein and Jung or the turbulent relationship between Freud and Jung. Instead Cronenberg gives us hints with a brief sex scene between Spielrein and Jung and two spanking scenes. Jung and Freud's tension is subtly hinted through the use of the voice over as the two write letters to each other. But the conflict is more or less indicated or told to us with little actual time devoted to showing or portraying the conflict. Thus, the film is more like a play, restrained and sometimes feels lacking in drama. 

Cronenberg however adds an elegant flair to the film through his use of his  stylish locations and through the beautiful work of his art director and costume designers. Howard Shore's subtle score, which borrows heavily from Wagner's Ring cycle (I actually don't remember a cue that was lacking in Wagner's music), adds finesse. But it's the actors who enliven this film through their complex portrayals and their execution of Hampton's articulate and stimulating dialogue. Leading the trio of actors is Keira Knightley. Knightley who is best known for participating in period dramas adds yet another one to her credits. This time however she gets the showiest role of her career. Early in September Knightley split the critics with this performance as people complained that it was over the top and forced. To my taste Knightley played her role to perfection bringing extreme physicality. Her twitching and jaw-gutting at the beginning of the film reveals a severely ill woman that gets under your nerves, but in a good way. As the film progresses she gets cured and Knightley calms her performance. She is delicate in every way from her facial expressions to her movements always maintaining an emotionally honest character. 

Michael Fassbender who has had the breakout year of his career brings charm to his performance as the tortured and eventually neurotic Carl Jung. However unlike Fassbender's other sexually driven film "Shame", this performance is much too restrained and it never really demonstrates what Fassbender is capable of doing as an actor, especially after seeing his other films. Despite the tormented nature of his work in "X-men" and "Shame," Fassbender's work in those two films was dominated by his powerful presence. While Jung is certainly a character of a different ilk, this performance lacks the colors and hues that the other two aforementioned roles are bursting with. However, I would certainly not call him a weak link in this film by any means. The performance is serviceable.  

Although the two leads are wonderful it is Viggo Mortensen that stands out in this film. Having previously worked with Cronenberg in Eastern Promises and A History of Violence, one may have expected a physical performance from Mortensen. The result is a subtle elegantly nuanced performance that demonstrates Freud's discipline and ambition. Additionally Mortensen shapes his dialogue in such a way that he adds humor to what may seem otherwise dry. 

Vincent Cassel and Sarah Gadon make small, yet effective  appearances in the film. Overall the film may be too talky, and restrained for a mass audience. The subject matter which deals with sexual repression and its creation of neurosis, coupled with Jung and Freud's pedagogical disputes may also bore certain audiences who prefer the drama to have emotional rather than scholarly or philosophical immediacy. Nevertheless, A Dangerous Method's is best seen as a mixed bag experiment balanced by strong performances. 

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