Scream Memories

David Cronenberg, A Dangerous Method, 2011, color film in 35 mm, 99 minutes. Sabina Spielrein and Carl Jung (Keira Knightley and Michael Fassbender).

THE ARC OF DAVID CRONENBERG’S career as a director mirrors that of an idiosyncratic underground band that slowly finds mainstream acceptance, its skills improving as its aesthetics plane out to inoffensive craftsmanship. Formerly a true innovator in the disreputable genres of horror and science fiction, the Canadian filmmaker was for a quarter century perhaps the greatest living example of the auteur theory, his films exploring extreme physical and psychological mutation with the single-mindedness of an obsessive still-life painter, examining and reexamining the same source material from every possible angle. Some called his early style “venereal horror,” a subgenre made even more unusual by the fact that Cronenberg took the point of view of—and wanted his audience to sympathize with—the disease. Among directors who have managed to sell some popcorn, there are few, if any, whose filmographies can match the consistently twisted subjectivity on display in Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979), Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986), Dead Ringers (1988), and Naked Lunch (1991).

Clearing his throat with M. Butterfly (1993), but truly starting with Spider (2002), Cronenberg left the twitching viscera behind and focused on more “mature” subjects; themes of psychological transformation and/or delusion were still present, but the films seemed designed for positive reviews in the New Yorker instead of Fangoria. He’d been celebrated for his auteurist movies by postmodern theorists and leather academics for years, and, of course, revered by fans of gore. He had highbrow and lowbrow covered. Since then, he’s been attempting to furrow the middlebrow. Not coincidentally, he also stopped writing his own screenplays.

What has been gained? For one, a Scorsese/De Niro–like symbiosis with actor Viggo Mortensen, who has starred in his last three films. For another, a subtler, more classical mise-en-scène. Always a competent technician with a strong visual sensibility, Cronenberg has developed a cool, almost clinical approach to composition, not unlike that of fellow Canadian Atom Egoyan. He can also deliver masterfully choreographed, human-based action sequences, as in the thwarted robbery scene that begins A History of Violence (2005) and the naked shower-room knife fight in Eastern Promises (2007). And he continues to wink at his more radical past with bits of “shocking” business—Ed Harris’s obscenely wandering eye in Violence; the barbershop throat slitting and brothel carousing in Promises.

In A Dangerous Method, his latest film, that bit of business is the ritualized spanking of Keira Knightley, delivered by an actor (Michael Fassbender) playing the young psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Based on the 2002 play The Talking Cure by Christopher Hampton (who also cowrote the screenplay), Method follows the true story of the complicated intellectual-emotional triangle of Jung; his patient, lover, and student Sabina Spielrein (Knightley); and his mentor and colleague Sigmund Freud (Mortensen in a very convincing prosthetic nose). Spielrein was admitted to the Zurich clinic where Jung worked, a hysteric fixated on (and aroused by) humiliation, a psychological echo of her father’s verbal abuse and beatings. As Jung “cures” her, he notices her intelligence and aptitude for psychoanalytic work, and starts using her as an assistant, eventually sponsoring her own graduate work in the field.

David Cronenberg, A Dangerous Method, 2011, color film in 35 mm, 99 minutes. Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen).

In the meantime, he begins a mad love affair with his beautiful charge, spanking and deflowering her after an earnest debate about psychoanalytic theory. A straight-laced, personally conservative married man at the outset (despite an interest in mysticism and the supernatural), Jung succumbs to Spielrein’s charms after Freud sends him one of his own patients to mind: the louche, womanizing, drug-addicted psychoanalyst Otto Gross, who counsels Jung to “never repress anything.” Meanwhile, Jung and Freud correspond, meet, travel to conferences together, and generally invent and defend the discipline of psychoanalysis, the “dangerous method” of the title. Freud admonishes Jung to stop calling it “psychanalysis” because “ ‘psychoanalysis’ sounds better.”

As written by Hampton and portrayed by Mortensen, Freud is an anxious father figure, perennially worried about personal finances and the reputation of his fledgling field. He eventually breaks with Jung, his favored “son,” because the latter’s desire to study telepathy, ancient mythology, and UFOs might delegitimize psychoanalysis as a new type of science. Spielrein serves as a muse to both men, suggesting the seed idea for the animus/anima concept to Jung and the sex/death drive connection to Freud. These exchanges, radically condensed as they are for dramatic purposes, can be unintentionally comedic. You can almost see the proverbial lightbulb over Jung’s head turn on as Spielrein innocently says, “Don’t you think there’s a bit of woman in every man and man in every woman?”

And that’s the problem with A Dangerous Method: The historical material is inherently fascinating, but the screenplay is so full of shorthand that it threatens to trivialize both the characters and their ideas. It’s momentarily amusing to watch Freud stare quizzically at his cigar, but the joke is cheap in a Where’s Waldo?/spot-the-allusion kind of way. Sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar. Cronenberg’s direction is supremely tasteful and controlled, but almost airless. Even the spankings seem studied. From a man who once trafficked in truly dangerous methods—“gynecological tools for operating on mutant women,” say—this is hard to accept.

A Dangerous Method opens November 23.