In Contention


REVIEW: “A Dangerous Method” (**1/2)

Posted by Guy Lodge · 8:50 am · September 2nd, 2011

Venice Film Festival

“Do you think they know we’re on our way, bringing them the plague?” So asks Viggo Mortensen’s Sigmund Freud of his younger colleague Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), as the two approach New York City to gift the untreated denizens of America with their equally grueling brands of psychoanalysis, in the closing stretch of “A Dangerous Method,” David Cronenberg’s thoughtfully embroidered account of their professional rivalry.

It’s the sharpest line in corset-prestige specialist Christopher Hampton’s script, adapted none-too-cinematically from his 2002 play “The Talking Cure.” It is also, as most Freudophiles will recognize, one he didn’t write himself — like so many of a writer’s best moments, it was gifted to him by legend. Freud, luckily enough, had a pretty dry line in irony; drier, perhaps, than that of Hampton, who tackles his historical subjects’ rich battle of wills and philosophies with the requisite scholarly enthusiasm, but is oddly cautious,  even a little po-faced, about the way he fashions intellectual debate into drama.

Handled by Cronenberg with characteristic fastidiousness but a surprising lack of perversity, “A Dangerous Method” will delight lovers of highbrow adult cinema of discussion and mildly disappoint those hoping the subject matter augured a return to the deranged, physicality-obsessed kinkmeister of old. (One half-wishes Cronenberg and Pedro Almodóvar had traded their most recent scripts at the Kit Kat-style bar where they presumably hang out.)

The film lays out its substantial thoughts on desire, masochism and trauma with a dense even-handedness that sometimes stimulates, but doesn’t test the taste barrier by subjecting theory to allegory, as it were. Even the sexual content, involving Jung and his high-strung patient-turned-protégée Sabine Spielrein (Keira Knightley), is all but bracketed as literal case study, alternately enacting Jungian and Freudian principles without threatening to push things into unwritten psychological territory; that way lies madness, and Knightley’s bravely bug-eyed performance in the film’s opening third has already provided an elegant sufficiency of that for the tony audience Cronenberg appears to crave here.

If this is a circuitous way of saying the film is artful but also a little airless, distinguished but also a little dull, that’s because such blunt “go bigger” lines of criticism skate close to chiding a director for not making films he might not have in his system anymore: how long can one go on fighting tonal shifts in an artist’s ever-growing oeuvre?

This cleanly reserved quality isn’t a new development for the director: only their genre tropes make the restrained double-shot of “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises” seem wilder by comparison. And like those films, “A Dangerous Method” does feature fleeting stabs of old-Cronenberg baseness and curiosity: a rosy blotch of blood on Knightley’s bedsheet after her first sexual encounter with Jung is a typically nasty (if perhaps aptly faded) detail, while the camera’s loving caress of Jung’s inscrutable measuring equipment during a tautly written analysis scene recalls the dehumanized process fetishization of “Dead Ringers.”

“A Dangerous Method” certainly isn’t as leashed and neutered as Cronenberg’s last attempt to film a fine-bone-china theatrical piece, 1993′s far thinner and less articulate “M. Butterfly” — see, the evolution has been under way for some time now — but even within a more subtly transgressive realm, it misses some key opportunities to excite. Visually, it’s a markedly tame beast, with regular DP Peter Suschitzky’s evenly sunlit lensing and James McAteer’s tidy, unblemished production design lending the film an elevated, staged feel that may or may not be intentional — but even assuming the best, doesn’t seem the best visual platform for already word-bound material. (Whatever I said about Hampton’s writing at the outset of this review, “The Talking Cure” was a pretty self-ironic title.)

It’s left to the actors to breathe life, as well as ambiguity, into this highly textual material, and it’s a point of interest that they haven’t settled on a common approach between them.

Knightley seems most married to a stage-oriented conception of the material: a divisively mannered actress even in her strongest work, she enters the film in a heightened, twisting frenzy, shrieking abrasively in a Russian accent whose artifice even sounds studied, and jutting out her lower lip to a contortive degree that has had more than one Lido wag joking that Cronenbergian body-horror is at least alive and well in her jaw.

It’s an all-or-nothing thespian gambit that doesn’t pay off, but it leaves the actress with nowhere to go but down: the performance levels as the character approaches cure, though Knightley’s archness remains in place.

As if terrified into submission by his co-star’s entrance, Fassbender spends the rest of the film quizzically underplaying, his Jung permanently considering his words before releasing them so tightly he can suck them back in through his teeth if required; he gives the film a solid spine, but it’s the more relaxed, sardonic delivery of Mortensen — plus Vincent Cassel, in a relishable cameo as a sex-addicted patient offering Jung seductive arguments for polygamy — that provides the film with its most immediate pleasures.

In a role smaller than the film’s marketing would have you believe, Mortensen is so silkily persuasive an argumentative foil for Fassbender in the scenes they share that the narrative seems more a head-to-head than it structurally is. In once scene, the older man’s classically Freudian interpretation of one of Jung’s dreams oh-so-nearly tilts into an open invitation to take him to bed; that’s a film a younger , nervier Cronenberg might easily have been coaxed into making.

[Images: Sony Pictures Classics]




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40 responses so far

  • 1 9-02-2011 at 8:58 am

    Richard said...

    very good review.

  • 2 9-02-2011 at 9:26 am

    /3rtfu11 said...

    I had no expectations of this release being a return to form for Cronenberg. He simply got tired of his niche. For some reason I don’t have too strong a memory about his post-Crash (1996) follow-ups — the weird ones before AHOV.

  • 3 9-02-2011 at 9:29 am

    DylanS said...

    Another excellent review Guy, keep it up. I have heard better from others regarding the film so far, McCarthy seemed to love it (Particularly Knightley’s peformance). I’m still very interested to see this one.

  • 4 9-02-2011 at 9:36 am

    Bryce H. said...

    This review scares me because it’s almost exactly what I expect to think if I’m not over the moon for the film…

  • 5 9-02-2011 at 9:43 am

    Robert Hamer said...

    My heart sank to my stomach reading this review.

  • 6 9-02-2011 at 9:48 am

    Alice_R said...

    Whatever.. all the other reviews were good :/

  • 7 9-02-2011 at 10:00 am

    Sawyer said...

    Hopefully *fingers crossed* this is a not-so-rare occasion in which I disagree with Guy Lodge, but I respect his take. However, when I see a description like this one:

    “A Dangerous Method” will delight lovers of highbrow adult cinema of discussion and mildly disappoint those hoping the subject matter augured a return to the deranged, physicality-obsessed kinkmeister of old”

    I am sure, knowing my cinematic tastes, I will enjoy the film more than Guy. Good review nonetheless, keep them coming! Still hoping for a glowing Shame review.

  • 8 9-02-2011 at 10:03 am

    Nick Davis said...

    Shoot. I was worried about this. Shoot. I hate when my chips are all stacked on the square of disagreeing with you, not because it isn’t fun but because it isn’t that frequent!

  • 9 9-02-2011 at 10:03 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Still hoping for a glowing Shame review.

    As am I!

  • 10 9-02-2011 at 10:32 am

    red_wine said...

    It always seemed to me that this film, atleast sexually, would have to be out there to truly work.

    But yeah, the lack of wildness is somewhat disheartening. But I do hope I like it.

  • 11 9-02-2011 at 10:33 am

    Ali said...

    I usually share Guy’s taste and love his reviews but when someone like him talks about the jaw of the main actress to define her performance then I lose interest in his opinion. Pretty ridiculous !

  • 12 9-02-2011 at 10:34 am

    Maxim said...

    “In once scene, the older man’s classically Freudian interpretation of one of Jung’s dreams oh-so-nearly tilts into an open invitation to take him to bed; that’s a film a younger , nervier Cronenberg might easily have been coaxed into making.”

    Maybe I’m in the minority here but I am glad that Cronenberg’s take is more reserved (and, as it may be, realistic if not less obvious). I haven’t seen the film yet, obviously, but I think that too much kinkiness and literalness would have only been a distraction.

    For every M. Butterfly there is also Crash. Interested to see where exactly the movie falls on that scale.

  • 13 9-02-2011 at 10:36 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Ali: Sounds to me more like he’s commenting on what others are saying, re: her jaw.

  • 14 9-02-2011 at 10:36 am

    red_wine said...

    Oh and here’s hoping that Lanthimos will provide the fest with the dazzle and thunder it so seems to need, something that will appall and surprise and spark heated debate.

  • 15 9-02-2011 at 10:37 am

    Maxim said...

    “I usually share Guy’s taste and love his reviews but when someone like him talks about the jaw of the main actress to define her performance then I lose interest in his opinion. Pretty ridiculous !”

    In all fairness to Guy (and I don’t usually share his tastes), I am pretty sure that’s not what he said. A pretty funny zing nevertheless, though.

  • 16 9-02-2011 at 10:37 am

    neils said...

    Actually Ali, a number of reviewers have talked about the studied, obviously acting quality of Keira’s performance. From the trailer I thought this looked surprisingly dull and lacking in crackle. The review sounds like that will be the case.

    Guy you are a fantastic writer and your reviews are a joy to read.

  • 17 9-02-2011 at 10:54 am

    Michael said...

    Great review Guy! My expectations were already somewhat lowered after the trailer, but this review has diminished them even further. I will still see the film when it comes out (I love the Fassbender and the Cronenberg) but I will go into it expecting a tame curio and not some cuh-razy kinkfest as I had hoped based on the synopsis.

  • 18 9-02-2011 at 11:08 am

    Tisforthommy said...

    Great review, but I had hoped the film would have made a better impression. This sounds way too much like what I feared this film would be like, after I saw that underwhelming trailer. Well executed, mannered, but too polite and not edgy enough. And in 8 out of 10 cases, I more or less agree with Guy’s reaction to a film. We, meaning I, will see.

  • 19 9-02-2011 at 11:54 am

    ninja said...

    “she enters the film in a heightened, twisting frenzy, shrieking abrasively in a Russian accent whose artifice even sounds studied and jutting out her lower lip to a degree to a contortive degree that has had more than one Lido wag joking that Cronenbergian body-horror is at least alive and well in her jaw.”

    Bravo! Cronenberg body horror has always been alive in her jaw in eevry role but I can see from trailers that it`s especially over the top here. Best summary of KK`s acting style ever.

  • 20 9-02-2011 at 12:03 pm

    Bia said...

    Is Keira doing a Russian accent?! In the trailer it sounded British…like herself. :/

  • 21 9-02-2011 at 12:42 pm

    Keith said...

    *Splat* The reviews coming out of Venice have been disappointing. Or maybe I should lower my expectations. ha!

  • 22 9-02-2011 at 1:12 pm

    Fitz said...

    At least now I know not to expect another ‘Eastern Promises’ or ‘History of Violence’. I would like to see Mortensen get his due though.

  • 23 9-02-2011 at 1:23 pm

    JJ1 said...

    As an admittedly s0-so Cronenberg fan (not liking his more severe efforts, but loving recent ones) … Guy, am I more apt to enjoy ‘A Dangerous Method’ than those who are longing for ‘old’ Cronenberg?

  • 24 9-02-2011 at 1:36 pm

    Keith said...

    I’ll still see this eventually. I’m a Cronenberg fan, so it will be interesting to see how this fits in his body of work. As for the other movies Guy, has reviewed, I’ll still see Ides of March and Carnage. The reviews haven’t been what I hoped, but they haven’t been scathing either. As for W.E., it appears to be exactly what I thought it would be and I don’t plan on seeing it.

  • 25 9-02-2011 at 1:49 pm

    Dana Jones said...

    @Robert Hammer & Alice R- 2.5/4 stars isn’t that bad.

    Knightely seems to be getting a lot of attention- for better or worse. David Gritten seems to love her performance, although Guy might disagree ;)

  • 26 9-02-2011 at 3:29 pm

    Jake Garza said...

    Ugh its so hard to understand your reviews when you try and talk like the smartest person in the world!

  • 27 9-02-2011 at 4:55 pm

    j said...

    It’s hard to understand conversation when it’s not at its lowest common denominator, huh?

    Anyway, any actress performance that is anticipated and doesn’t meet expectations increases the chances for La Streep just a bit.

  • 28 9-02-2011 at 5:06 pm

    The Great Dane said...

    So IS Knightley the real lead? Or is the marketing/trailer/poster/billing order fooling us? Mortensen being second-billed is all marketing, I guess, from what I’ve read.

  • 29 9-02-2011 at 5:31 pm

    JJ1 said...

    Great question ^.

    Guy, how does Fassbender/Mortensen/Knightley break-down – to you – with Lead/Supporting possibilities?

  • 30 9-02-2011 at 11:08 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Fassbender is the lead. You could make an argument for Knightley either way, but I’m sure they’ll campaign her in supporting. Mortensen plainly supporting.

    I don’t think any of them will be nominated.

  • 31 9-02-2011 at 11:14 pm

    Danielle said...

    Guy, I haven’t seen the film (obviously) but your critique of Keira’s performance sounds exactly like Sabina’s actual diagnosis in Jung’s journal: “‘patient laughs and cries in a strangely mixed, compulsive manner. Masses of tics; she rotates her head jerkily, sticks out her tongue, twitches her legs… Cannot stand people or noise.’” (The Telegraph).

    Do you think her facial tics were just too extreme and so took you out of the movie, or do you genuinely believe that she looked amateur? Thanks.

  • 32 9-03-2011 at 4:30 am

    matsunaga said...

    Very well said Guy!!! I’m looking forward for more especially your “Faust” review… Crossed fingers it will be better…

    On the other hand, I wonder how many Keira Knightley haters are rejoicing for every single bad review of her performance here in ADM?

  • 33 9-03-2011 at 5:57 am

    JJ1 said...

    Wow. Going in to the season, it seemed like Fassbender, but particularly Mortensen & Knightley had big chances for noms. Surprised to hear that none of them may happen.

    Guy, you don’t see SAG/AMPAS going for any of ‘em, huh? They’re not ‘wow’ or ‘flashy’ enough? Maybe inconsistent?

  • 34 9-03-2011 at 7:06 am

    Ali said...

    That’s only Guy’s opinion about the nominations so I wouldn’t be dismissing any of them at all…

  • 35 9-03-2011 at 8:27 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Danielle: Obviously, I’m not suggesting Knightley conjured these tics out of thin air — her performance is nothing if not meticulous and attentive to context. But “oh, she’s supposed to be crazy” is a lazy defence in my book; she didn’t convince me of the character’s mental psychological transitions.

    Matsunaga: A number of prominent critics admire her performance.

    JJ1: It’s not just about the performances, it’s about the film. I never thought an academic Cronenberg talkfest about sex and psychoanalysis sounded particularly Oscar-baity, though some make the mistake of assuming anything with corsets is up their street. To get nominated for this kind of material, they need either to really like the film, or to really like the actor (which is how Geoffrey Rush, say, got in for Quills), and I’m not sure if Mortensen and Knightley, despite their previous nominations, are real pets of theirs yet. Both are possible (though Knightley’s performance is proving awfully divisive so far); Fassbender, meanwhile, is simply too passive here to break into the Best Actor category.

    Hope that’s a little clearer.

  • 36 9-03-2011 at 8:37 am

    JJ1 said...

    Extremely clear. Thanks, Guy! :)

  • 37 9-03-2011 at 9:04 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Ali: Missed your comment earlier, but if you really think I’m “defining” Knightley’s performance by one of her physical features, I’d question either your reading skills or your irony meter. A little levity in a review never hurt anyone — not every individual sentence needs to be taken at equal face value!

  • 38 9-05-2011 at 12:52 pm

    Natalie said...

    Guy,

    I appreciate your honesty and that you don’t follow the crowd. Nothing worse than critics who are just sheep. Doesn’t matter if I agree or disagree, you are simply refreshing. Just read your ‘Shame’ review, and now this one for ADM. Looking forward to seeing both movies. I will take the Fassbender in any movie he is in, hope ‘Shame’ finds a brave distributor.

    P.S. I see a lot of critics calling Keira’s acting ‘Brave’ nice to see that word used for something other than nudity for once.

  • 39 10-15-2011 at 8:24 am

    meep said...

    I miss “younger , nervier Cronenberg”……