First published on 7 Feb 2012. Updated on 22 Mar 2012.
David Cronenberg may have given the world venereal turd monsters, parasitic penis grafts, car-crash porn and the ultimate exploding head, but after more than 40 years in the directing game, he has done something truly shocking: he’s gone respectable.
His latest film, A Dangerous Method
, follows eminent psychotherapists Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen
) as they pontificate and pipe-smoke their way across 19th-century Europe and come to blows over the case of schizophrenic masochist Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). There’s barely a drop of blood (or any other bodily fluid) on display, and the only scene that even borders on being transgressive is a brief, tasteful spot of spanking between Fassbender and Knightley that is bound to disappoint anyone hoping for more of the Shame
But is A Dangerous Method
really such a departure for Cronenberg? The frilly frocks and stiff upper lips may suggest as much, but in truth, the director has been circling the idea of reputability for a while now. His most recent films – A History of Violence
(2005) and Eastern Promises
(2007) – had their fair share of bloody, bonecrunching action, but the gruesomely inventive body-horror which kickstarted his career was notable by its absence.
The clearest pre-echoes of A Dangerous Method in the Cronenberg canon can be found in two divergent but oddly sympathetic films made more than 20 years apart. The director’s 70-minute calling card, Crimes of the Future (1970), displays an interest in – and sense of humour about – the intricacies and absurdities of the psychology industry which finds a more serious and scholarly expression in the new movie.
The other direct antecedent of A Dangerous Method is the director’s 1991 historical drama M Butterfly, in which Jeremy Irons plays a British diplomat who falls for a beautiful Chinese opera singer, little suspecting that his paramour is not only a Communist spy, but a man in drag. It’s a film about the dark and desperate recesses of the human psyche, the lies we tell ourselves in order to survive in a high-pressure world. And like A Dangerous Method, M Butterfly takes itself terribly seriously, offering earnest performances and spectacular historical recreation, but failing to get to the beating heart of the matter.
A Dangerous Method may be visually sumptuous and flawlessly acted, but it’s also oddly anonymous, possessing a kind of ersatz Downton Abbey sheen far removed from the visceral intensity of Cronenberg’s earlier work. Where movies like Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986) and Dead Ringers (1988) left viewers spinning, desperately struggling to dig through all the layers of meaning, inference and intention which Cronenberg crammed in, A Dangerous Method is all surface: pretty, but empty.