Sunday, April 29, 2012

96. A DANGEROUS METHOD (2011)

It has become the view of many Cronenberg fans that he's gone astray, and has been astray for some time, but I've preferred to think he's been exploring, learning -- or, as he might say, mutating. Though I normally wouldn't think of comparing them, both his and Dario Argento's work began to lose their individuality (some might say potency; I might too) around the same time, in 1988, after Cronenberg filmed DEAD RINGERS and Argento made OPERA. Since then, for reasons that might have less to do with personal preference than the need to green-light new product, both filmmakers have entered into peculiar career phases committed to the suppression of ego. In Argento's case, he has transferred his ego into the younger and more commercial trust of his irrationally popular daughter Asia, who has starred in nearly all his films since TRAUMA; in Cronenberg's case, he has chosen (with the exception of EXISTENZ) to put his original writing in mothballs while honing his skills as an adapter/interpreter of other writers. His latest release, A DANGEROUS METHOD, tends to support my view because, although it is based on other writing, it shows him at least circling the airport of familiar obsessions once again.

It's based on Christopher Hampton's play THE TALKING CURE, based on the true story of Dr. Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his personal involvement with a clinically hysterical patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), who aspires to practice psychiatry, and how it and the emergence of his own unique views concerning psychoanalysis affected his personal, professional and political relationship with his mentor (and father figure), Dr. Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). The situation thus closely follows the template of his masterpiece DEAD RINGERS: two doctors, superficially alike but of different dispositions, are involved with an intense young woman torn between their polar, professional opposition.

I find this to be Cronenberg's most interesting feature since CRASH (a film I didn't much like at the time, but learned to appreciate over time), but what bothers me is that -- fine performances aside -- I don't find it particularly absorbing. Granted, it's a cerebral story, also a story about the control and containment of powerful reckless emotions (shades of SCANNERS, really) -- not only on Sabina's part, but also on Jung's part, whose closing assessment of his emotional life is beautifully described but cold-bloodedly compartmentalized, so that its utterance speaks to untold hours of suffering experienced behind an upright, well-buttoned façade. Likewise, there is something a little too well-ordered about the way A DANGEROUS METHOD unspools. It doesn't feel like an organic whole, of scenes held together by a force of cinema, but rather a string of related but antiseptically self-contained scenes, each designed to make its own individual pointed or sly or wry remark, so that the story feels dealt card-by-card. Some of the problem might be traced to something Cronenberg recently said in an interview with SIGHT & SOUND's Nick James: "Talking heads are the essence of cinema." I'm not sure if he actually believes this, or was intending to be provocative, but cinema has always been most essential when the characters shut up, even for five minutes, and let the story tell itself on a purely visual basis. But his comment would seem to confirm something else I've long believed, that Cronenberg is most important as a writer; his career as a director has always been most important for shepherding his highly original writing to the screen. What concerns me is that his career has become akin to the story so often revisited in his films, including this one: that his acquisition of directorial skills is not developing his voice as a filmmaker so much as controlling it, the polish that comes with mastery softening rather than sharpening the quirky edges that made his best work so fascinating.

Viewed on Amazon Instant Video.  

2 comments:

  1. I felt the same way about it and thought it had a disjointed feeling--and I was not surprised to see that it was based on a play [which was based on the book.]

    I still enjoyed it, many fans may disagree but I have really enjoyed his last few films and really appreciate the direction he's taken in recent years. I do think this seems a little more "Cronenberg" than the last couple of films he's done.

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  2. I wonder if it might be more helpful to consider Jeremy Thomas as an auteur producer, or at the very least a pragmatist who understands what films the arthouse-lite market wants. He certainly does seem to have a track record of producing films by people previously seen as being maverick auteur directors, who then make more mainstream films.

    If we look at Bertolucci's Last Emperor, The Dreamers and Stealing Beauty, Cronenberg's period from Crash to A Dangerous Method, and now Takashi Miike's move into heritage remakes, it does seem like Thomas is realigning once idiosyncratic filmmakers, and making them much less interesting - to me at least.

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