Monday, December 19, 2011

A Dangerous Method

A DANGEROUS METHOD                           C+                    
Great Britain  Germany  Canada  Switzerland  (99 mi)  2011  d:  David Cronenberg

Sort of like watching paint dry, as this ultra repressive, interior chamber drama moves with the glacial pace of Chekhov, usually stuck inside the sanctitude of one of many rooms but without his power of observation and social dissection.  Instead, this is a historical costume drama that presupposes the meeting of Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) at the dawn of the psychoanalytic age around the turn of the 20th century.  The film is a Christopher Hampton adaptation of his own play called A Talking Cure, which was adapted from John Kerr’s book using the film title.  As such, all action is advanced by dialogue, much of it through patient to therapist sessions, but also person to person discussions and through various letters sent between the two colleagues, who after striking up a rich personal friendship and professional associative relationship fell out of favor with each other, basically ending all communication.  Since the two are known to have fathered what is known today as the practice of psychoanalysis, it’s ironic that in their own relationship they couldn’t practice what they preached, falling instead into utter dysfunction.  While there is no doubt this raises intelligent issues, it will be hard to find an audience that is moved or actively interested in a cold intellectual discussion of their methodology as a science.  Unfortunately, this was reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s WAKING LIFE (2001), his animated, color-coated, drug fantasia that becomes a dull soliloquy of endless ethereal monologues spoken as if in a perpetual daydream that brought back memories of being lectured to, as the tone of the entire film here is as if what it has to say is so extremely important that it begins to sound entirely self-serving instead of interesting.  Both of these men, Jung and Freud, seem so arrogantly self-centered and full of themselves that it’s hard to believe anyone ever listened to either one of them.  

The two actors are among the best actors working today, but here both are toned down and restricted to emotionally straight jacketed performances, especially Fassbender as Jung, who always looks like he’s framed in a picture book of some kind or an upscale magazine devoted to the elegant lifestyles of the wealthy class living in the luxurious mansions along beautiful Lake Zurich.  His wife inherited money, so his ultra civilized dress and manner represents wealth and status, but also social rigidity, where one can suffocate in the righteous air of theoretical ideas, almost as if the body is completely cut off from the head attached to it.  Freud’s studies in Vienna, Austria led him to the conclusion that all neurotic behavior was caused from sexual repression, leading to a dialogue between patient and therapist in an attempt to discover the root of the problem, using dream analysis and a discussion probing the unconscious mind in an attempt to unlock the key to a healthier life.  Jung followed in his footsteps in Zurich, Switzerland, but refused to single out sex as a cause of repression, believing there could be a myriad of other possibilities.  Both believed in intensive dream analysis, which they shared with one another, holding nothing back about their private lives in their intimate discussions until eventually something happened to change all that.  Enter Keira Knightley, aka:  Sabina Spielrein, the patient.  If ever there was a hysterical, overacted performance, it is this one, which is barely watchable at times.  Add to this the phony accents and you’ve got yourself a turkey of a performance in a film that’s already difficult to engage with due to the sometimes studious and at times professorial content of the endless discussions. 

When Sabina describes her abusive family history, which has left her in an apoplectic state of continual hysteria, no one needs a degree in psychology to understand what a fragile and terrible condition she is in, where her body is filled with uncontrollable spasms reacting to her personal fears of continually being beaten by her father.  Making matters worse, she enjoys the punishment.  Promoting his inner calm, Jung is successful at getting her to accept herself as she is, an exceptionally well-educated woman unafraid to delve into the intellectual matters at hand, joining the psychoanalytic profession, though taking issue with both her colleagues.  While this speaks of the success of therapy, no one believes Sabina is ever cured due to Knightley’s sprawling performance which is all over the place, always eccentric, never really losing the hysteria, just the flinching body spasms.  While there’s not a lot to see and nothing particularly engaging, only lines of trust that are continually crossed, the film really dovetails off the charts, perhaps entirely miscast, where no character is the least bit interesting or sympathetic, made worse by the stifling oppressive tone of scholarly reserve, where anything outside this artificially passive world of stately elegance and manners is already seen as out of the ordinary and eventually out of bounds.  It well describes the fissure that came between the two men, all of which precedes the advent of World War One, a crisis of unthinkable proportions which would change the thinking forever about battle fatigue and chronic stress syndrome.  But these terms hadn’t yet been invented as Freud and Jung continue to squabble like children about their self-professed techniques in combating psychological relief.  Both men are out of  favor today due to advancements in the use of medicine for mental health treatment, which has all but replaced the idea of dream analysis and free associative psychoanalytic therapy sessions which are now largely based on an accumulation of family history and circumstances.  The elegance and classical style used by Cronenberg never varies, matched by the music of Howard Shore who steals excerpts from a Viennese composer from the same era, the uncredited Gustav Mahler.

Post Script – The irony is not lost to viewers, as any therapist who would actually do what is suggested here by one of the founders of the field would likely lose their license, be thrown out of practice, and receive a hefty jail sentence.  But of course, they were pioneers slogging their way through the wilderness. 

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