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The Cronenberg Chronicle-Phase One: A Dangerous Method (2011)

Time to embark on my most ambitious project to date: a backwards chronology of director David Cronenberg’s 18 feature films. I intend for this to be a once a month venture, with the only break in protocol occurring upon the release of feature #18(“Cosmopolis”), scheduled for a North American opening some time later this year. Why Cronenberg? Well, he has probably been my favorite auteur for over two decades now. And I was becoming a fan a good decade before that, watching works that I wasn’t necessarily even aware had come from him. I’m not sure I understood the true importance of the role of a film director until some point in the early 1980’s. By that time I had already seen, and admired, “The Brood”, “Scanners” and “The Dead Zone” from Mr. Cronenberg—at the very least. I think the first time I knowingly attended one of David’s film was his remake of “The Fly”. But it wasn’t until 1988’s “Dead Ringers” that I actively sought out a “David Cronenberg Film”. And what a choice! It just happens to be his masterpiece…and that’s when I became hooked. His list of noted admirers is impressively deep. No less an authority than Mr. Martin Scorsese called Cronenberg’s infamous 1996 film “Crash”(not to be confused with the tepid 2005 Best Picture winner of the same title), one of the ten best films of that decade. Love or leave him, it’s impossible to dismiss this Canadian master. As a friend of mine once said to me after his aversion to the style of D.C., “I guess fifty million Elvis fans can’t be wrong”. Pretty accurate I think—even if David doesn’t quite approach that number of followers. Btw, in taking on this venture, I promise to give each film a fresh view before adding it to the chronicle. For the record, I’ve just completed watching “A Dangerous Method” for the third time.

An adaptation of a Christopher Hampton(he also penned the film’s script)play and a non-fiction book by John Kerr, “A Dangerous Method” is decidedly atypical Cronenberg. So, if you are unfamiliar with his canon, I suggest that you do not begin here. Atypical or not, it is a highly satisfying gabfest, that focuses on the early titans of psychoanalysis—Carl Jung(Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud(Viggo Mortenson). The film opens with the institutionalization of Sabina Spielrein, played by Keira Knightley(in an unfairly derided performance). Keira provides the most obvious demonstration of Cronenberg’s “body-horror” theme, with her hysterically flamboyant jaw and hand gestures. It’s as off-putting as it’s meant to be, and it’s a performance that I am sure is heavily influenced by the director. That’s not bad acting folks—that’s called listening to the boss. Sabina soon becomes a patient of Dr. Carl Jung and begins a treatment that is an interpretation of that put forth by the celebrated Dr. Freud. The collaboration of Jung and Freud, and their burgeoning divergent paths, becomes the focal point of the doctors’ various exchanges. At one point, Freud sends Jung another patient—fellow psychoanalyst, Dr. Otto Gross(a wonderful Vincent Cassel). Gross seems wild and self-destructive, but his openly amorous sexual proclivities inspire the married Dr. Jung to pursue an affair with Ms. Spielrein—that is eventually met with disapproval by Freud. The “cured” Spielrein, soon on her way to becoming a renowned doctor herself, is now caught between her sexual and emotional devotion to Jung and her respect for the theories of Freud. Eventually, we are shown how all three continue to branch in different ways.

This is Viggo Mortenson’s third consecutive appearance in a David Cronenberg film, and the first time he is playing so wildly against type. Even so, he makes a credible Freud—in a performance that utilizes some sly humor. The ubiquitous Michael Fassbender(4 major film performances in 2011)creates a satisfying Carl Jung, as his conventional mores are slowly stripped away to the point of near incapacitation. I mentioned “body-horror” earlier, and it’s a term that is used frequently with Cronenberg. Starting with his feature debut, “Shivers” in 1975(the film was released in the U.S. with the title, “They Came From Within”—sheesh!), the theme of a disintegrating and betraying bodily form became the director’s signature. It remained prevalent straight through “eXistenZ” in 1999. His focus on betrayals of the human mind really started to take hold with “Spider” in 2002, and the theme of “body-horror” has become less prominent. But it has never completely vanished, and David Cronenberg devotees can spot it in all of his 4 films of the last decade—I am certain. So, you’ll hear quite a bit about this over the next 18 months…despite it not being the prevailing theme here.

“A Dangerous Method” is David’s first attempt at straight, historical biography. But he does manage to drag it directly into his canon…atypical though it may be. I’m not crazy about the occasional on-screen markings of “year” and “location”, but I guess that was unavoidable given the subject matter. Also, the first half of the film is particularly rich and fluid, with all 4 leads presented aptly. The screenplay is smashingly good throughout, and the editing of longtime Cronenberg collaborator Ronald Sanders keeps matters perfectly paced. If there is a debit in that second half, it rears itself with a somewhat rushed conclusion. The temptation to be more epic must have been tempting here, but that has never been David’s way. In fact, Cronenberg has never released a film that ran even a minute over two hours, so this 99 minute cut of “A Dangerous Method” is right in line with the majority of his features. Overall, this is a cerebral journey with a just-enough focus on perversity to link it to the director’s stable. It works(it’s one of my top ten films of 2011), even if it is a slight drop-off in quality from his last 3 films. It’s a history lesson worth absorbing and repeat views have proven infinitely rewarding.       Grade:  A-

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