Seeing the acclaimed Canadian director David Cronenberg’s new film, ‘A Dangerous Method’ after the messy and gimmicky award season was over, you are genuinely surprised. Why was this film ignored during the award season?
You wonder if the film would have been enthusiastically embraced if it were directed by James Ivory. ‘A Dangerous Method’ looks dangerously like a Merchant-Ivory production. Instead of Helena Bonham Carter you have Keira Knightly, instead of Anthony Hopkins Viggo Mortensen, instead of Hugh Grant Michael Fassbender. Other than that this drama of the beginning of psychoanalysis and a very uneven love triangle unfolds like a classic Ivory film – lush, detailed, languid, panoramic, sweeping, and talky, and full of ideas.
Alas, it is directed by Cronenberg, essentially a genre maverick, known for his films like ‘Videodrome’, ‘The Fly’ and so on. Perhaps he isn’t high-brow enough to be taken seriously. Really? Even after his recent films, ‘A History of Violence’, and ‘Eastern Promises,’ both of which boasted powerhouse performances by Mortensen (People now seem to have forgotten that this is the same guy who once played Aragon in the Lord of the Rings trilogy!).
Here, Mortensen plays Sigmund Freud, and what a performance, understated, shearing (he was named the best supporting actor in Canadian version of the Oscars, the Jinny awards). But the film is not about him (It’s about time Freud got a film of his own!), but about his method, the talking cure.
This is the turn of the century. It’s an exciting time intellectually. There has been a lot of discoveries and inventions. And, Freud propounds that all mental illnesses are linked to a person’s sexuality. Till then the only way to cure a mental illness was lobotomy; it wasn’t much of a cure really, as it rendered the patient mentally useless after the cure. Freud propounds that there is another way to treat these patients, by talking to them, making them see the reality. But, this is all theory. He has never tried this cure on anyone.
In Zurich, a young medical practitioner with a rich wife, Carl Jung, is inspired by Freud’s thesis. He wants to test it, and as fate would have it, he soon gets a chance, as a young Russian Jewish woman suffering from acute hysteria is entrusted to his care.
She is Sabine. She is beautiful, and intelligent and ambitious. Jung works on her and is finally able to cure her. In the process, however, he falls headlong in love with her, which is eagerly reciprocated. Sabine introduces to Jung a world of sexuality beyond the confines of a comfortable upper middle class marriage. But, he knows it’s wrong, he cannot be sleeping with his patient.
And, since he’s a psychologist, trying to unearth the mechanics of the minds, there are other issues that troubles him, morality, propriety, social etiquette and authority and power, and such. All this is compounded when he meets his mentor Freud, a hard to please authoritarian man, the classic father figure whom Jung has to resist and overcome.
Cronenberg presents all these as high drama and he is essentially successful. As Roger Ebert observed, the film teaches us, and we don’t even realise it. For this, the credit must go to the actors, especially Knightly, who inhabits the role of Sabine with dignity, in such powerful way that the film can be read as a reinvention of the real Sabine as a feminist icon, which she was, and perhaps she was the first person to validate the reality and importance of sadomasochism. And, Fassbender proves himself, again, to be a actor, as well as he is a star. (2011 was in a sense was Fassbender’s year, he stripped naked in ‘Shame’, he played a superhero in ‘X-Men First Class, and he played a real-life character, all with equal élan. A star is made.)
The film is not a technical biopic, but a slice of history. If you find the film talky, blame it on its antecedents, the material based on a book, which was turned into a stage play.
There has been another film on the same subject, ‘The Soul Keeper’, telling the story of the relationship between Jung and Sabine during the course of the latter’s treatment. However, that film was more of a romantic melodrama, where Jung gives Sabine a pebble saying that it was his soul and she was his soul keep. How nice. However, both the film agrees on one thing. It was Sabine who inspired Jung in his work and made him the man he’d become. Talk about having a woman behind every successful man!