While Videodrome (1983) remains my favourite Cronenberg movie and on the whole I prefer his earlier to his later work, he is a director who continues to amuse me. When I went to see Cronenberg’s latest flick A Dangerous Method (at the Soho Curzon) I was apparently surrounded by a bunch of badly dressed shrinks and therapists who found the film ‘intense’ and lapped it up in the same way they’d ‘appreciate’ any other worthless costume drama designed to appeal to the type of middle-class and middle-brow film-goer who thinks a TV show like Strictly Come Dancing is raunchy. In stark contrast to the bits and pieces of conversation I overheard on my way out of the cinema, I knew I’d just sat through a slab of exploitation schlock rooted in horror and art house tropes, which simultaneously provided a bellyful of laughs at the expense of the founding fathers of psychoanalytic pseudo-science. It seemed the so-called ‘mental health professionals’ sitting around me were just too self-absorbed and/or ignorant to notice their idols were being mocked.
The movie begins with a woman being restrained in a coach pulled by black horses – creating a mood more akin to a campy Hammer period horror than a faux-historical snorefest concocted by the likes of Merchant Ivory. The woman is Sabrina Spielrein (played by Keira Knightley), a hysteric who undergoes a ‘talking cure’ and emerges from this to play a leading role in the cult of psychoanalysis. The character and the way her hysterical outbursts are framed are obviously modelled on Isabelle Adjani’s performance in Andrzej Zulawski’s horror/thriller/drama crossover Possession (1981). That said Knightly isn’t nearly as good an actress as Adjani – but that doesn’t matter too much as Cronenberg plays A Dangerous Method mostly for quiet laughs (so the fact that Knightly’s cod-Russian accent wanders across the Atlantic and back is of little consequence).
Speilrein’s doctor is the idiotic Carl Gustav Jung and the fact he is played by Michael Fassbender (who many cinema goers will have seen recently in Steve McQueen’s celluloid train wrecks Hunger and Shame) means that even if he weren’t such a pathetic figure it would still be impossible to take him seriously. Speilrein and Jung talk complete bollocks to each other until they get so bored with their moronic chats that they embark on a sado-masochistic affair (which is laugh-out-loud funny precisely because Fassbender as Jung brandishing a leather belt makes for a hilariously unconvincing top).
Meanwhile Sigmund Freud (played by Viggo Mortensen) has entered the frame and quickly proves himself to be as much of a charlatan as Jung (hardly surprising since Jung models his ‘medical work’ on Freud’s quack theories). Freud in A Dangerous Method reminded me of Roy Scheider playing another quack – Dr. Benway – in Cronenberg’s earlier film adaptation of the William Burrough’s book The Naked Lunch (1991). As a result of this, at any moment I was expecting Freud to announce: “I deplore brutality. It’s not efficient. On the other hand, prolonged mistreatment, short of physical violence, gives rise, when skilfully applied, to anxiety and a feeling of special guilt.” (Words Burroughs credits to Benway). In Cronenberg’s new movie, Freud (like Benway) lacks a conscience and enjoys seeing others dependent upon him.
Ultimately the ‘true story’ on which A Dangerous Method is based doesn’t amount to much. What makes the film work is Cronenberg’s endless use of pastiche and cinematic reference. For example, Jung and Freud conversing while strolling through a formal garden that brings to mind scenes from the Alain Resnais/Alain Robbe-Grillet collaboration Last Year In Marienbad (1961).
As an attack on the quackery of psychoanalysis A Dangerous Method may be more restrained that Lucio Fulci’s superior A Cat In The Brain (1990), but nonetheless both movies successfully portray shrinks as being totally unsuited to care for the mentally disturbed. The invocation of Last Year At Marienbad really underlines this – despite there being no consensus about the central subject matter of the film. One of the more convincing interpretations of Marienbad is that it is concerned with a rape. Spielrein too can be read as being raped by Jung (both mentally and physically), and after being abused goes on to become an abuser (psychoanalyst) herself.
So don’t believe the hype – Cronenberg hasn’t degenerated into the type of effete middle-brow tosser worshipped by bourgeois cineastes. He’s still way better than that! Long live the New Flesh!
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!