The talking film
And David Cronenberg continues his wayward, at times misguided, but always fascinating attempt to evolve away from standard-issue horror prosthesis to something simpler, more challenging, far more abstract.
Just to backtrack: always thought Cronenberg made two kinds of films: one focusing on carnal (to be more specific: genital) horror (The Brood (1977), The Fly (1986), Dead Ringers (1988)), the other on intellectual horror (as early as The Dead Zone (1983), to Crash (1996) to Spider (2002) to this film). I'm oversimplifying, of course--The Brood is a manifestation of a woman's feelings, and Dead Ringers is as much about the psychic bond between twins as it is about their shared career as gynecological surgeons. On the other hand Crash is as much about the lurid qualities of flesh as it is about autoeroticism (in a radically different sense) while Spider deals with the reality of the protagonist's low-functioning brain as well as the psychological traumas that have caused it injury.
And now his latest, which mixes matters up as intricately as ever: the central philosophical conflict between two of the most influential minds of the 20th century--Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen, in his third fruitful collaboration with the director) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbinder, in his first)--the catalyst being a young woman named Sabina Spielrein (Kiera Knightly), Jung's lover and later Freud's confidante.
Based on the book by John Kerr (A Most Dangerous Method) and later turned into a Christopher Hampton play (The Talking Cure), Hampton frames it thusly: Freud was the conservative, careful patriarch of psychoanalysis, Jung his daring, intuitive protege. Spielrein provided Jung with the sexual and later intellectual inspiration to create his theories about symbolism and archetypes; her ideas would later prod Freud into developing a theory about death drives, or the wish for self-destruction.
It's a clash of ideas and temperaments: mystic Jung with his belief that all lives and events and times are in fact interconnected versus rational Freud, who insists on evidence and the importance of the scientific process. Hampton's script and Cronenberg's film presents the clash dramatically as a debate between the two famous figures, in person or (mostly) in longhand, with letters and missives fired away at the adversary with the kind of breathless passion Hampton managed to evoke in Stephen Frear's bosom-heaving, bodice-tearing Dangerous Liaisons (1988). In this film, a remark serves as a feint or riposte while an entire letter is the opening broadside to a full-on attack on another's philosophy. Words do more than break one's bones; here they cause irreparable damage.
Cronenberg is inevitably a more focused, more intellect-heavy filmmaker than Frears, and lately has been more on a head as opposed to genital kick (see Crash and Spiders); his A Dangerous Method is ostensibly less entertaining than Frear's earlier work, but also far more demanding and, ultimately, more satisfying. He seems to take a page from Bresson (hard to see Cronenberg taking anything from the man but I submit to you that Bresson in a very special sense is also a horror filmmaker), using images of men writing missives and overlaying them with dispassionate voiceover readings to suggest that the drama and suffering, the figurative drip of blood and shred of flesh, is really going on underneath all the waistcoats and double-breasted suits (in one shot he has Viggo's Freud walk across a beautifully manicured courtyard while the camera swoops down to capture the totally repressed devastation on his face). Abstracted, sublimated violence--dull on paper but for the jaded Cronenberg viewer really an electrifying way to go (and basically the direction where this filmmaker appears to be headed).
But Cronenberg the genre filmmaker has not entirely disappeared. The interest in sadomasochistic sex continues, seems to extend what he continued in A History of Violence (2005), coming from the earlier Crash (1996), and as far back as Videodrome (1983); here the bondage and spanking, relatively mild for Cronenberg, seems more like one of many manifestations of the inner turmoil of the characters, another minor symptom roiling away beneath the skin (what Cronenberg might call their sense of security, their complacency).
And as for creature effects: there is an early scene where Keira Knightley, arguably one of the loveliest actresses in cinema, freaks out before the camera. It's as if Cronenberg had sat his chair right in front of her and carefully instructed her on the precise mimicry of Seth Brundle's transformation into Brundlefly without the use of any prosthetic or digital effects whatsoever. The results are...well, disturbing is a mild way of putting it. Cronenberg seems to subscribe to the principle that if you want to instill a sense of dread in your audience, have your villain or monster do something terrible early in the film and watch them cringe every time said villain or monster threatens to act up again (something of a corollary to the Hitchockian principle that to generate suspense the audience should know more than the protagonist does--here the crucial piece of knowledge is just what horrible act said monster is capable of committing). Knightley's male fans may want to think again before they come to this, with its promises of breast exposure and the sight of Knightley's bottom being strapped. Knightley here is entirely Cronenberg's creature, and like any creature of his creation it has the tendency to crawl under one's mental skin and, well, feed, fester, breed. Not for the metaphorically squeamish.
First published in Businessworld, 4.12.12