Sunday, September 25, 2011

Film Review: "A Dangerous Method" (**1/2)

"Do you think they know we're on our way, bringing them the plague?"

I doubt a film so irritatively dividing of me has come along thus far this year. That much I can say with confidence about David Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method". Across the film's generous runtime, questions of sexuality, psychology (obviously), emotion, compromise, family, and repression are brought up by the script, but oddly enough not by the film itself. By "the film" I speak of Cronenberg, whose work here is more to draw attention to the film than embellish anything about it. A line like the one above should just be one a group that stick out, but it's the only moment in the film in which you wish for something a bit more incendiary than what we received.

"A Dangerous Method" follows Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung, a budding psychologist following in the steps of Sigmund Freud, portrayed here by the more recently unseen Viggo Mortensen. Jung's passion is lit by prominent patient Sabrina Spielrein, with Keira Knightly literally screaming onto the scene. It puts things firmly in her corner as far as where our attention goes. The film very nearly begins with her first meeting with Jung, jutting her jaw out obtrusively as the telltale sign of her own mental instability. It's never stated what her problem is, but it's never really necessary either.

The film goes from there on a collision course with the main talking point of her sexual relationship with Jung. That's the plot this film was built around, or at least so the marketing would like us to believe. In truth, so little of the film is occupied by that short time in their life. It's really just a 20 minute period before it's dead and gone. Hope I'm not spoiling anything there, but it really shouldn't come as a surprise that it ends, and it shouldn't come as a surprise that it's the guy who ends it. It was a different time, I suppose, when the insane woman took the initiative and the married man cowered in his corner.

The rest of the film raises a multitude of questions about the relationship and feud, not between Spielrein and Jung, but between Jung and Freud. Freud, after all is the man behind the psychological revolution of the 20th century. Who would dare dispute him? The thing about both Jung and Freud is that they are both uncompromising to the point of arrogance, Freud in his obsession with the sexual and Jung in his desperate attempt at expansion in the field. While they have an agree-to-disagree sort of relationship at first, Jung eventually starts to grapple with Freud, causing the psychological father-figure of the world to regard him as infantile in his stagnation. Somehow, however, there's this odd and underlying sexual charge to their scenes that isn't taken advantage of, and that's a shame.

It's all very interesting, not to mention thought-provoking, but of all the questions raised, the film doesn't agree on a consistent and unanimous one. It overreaches and underreaches in both of the wrong categories. Cronenberg has fallen into a historical rut recently, and that bottoms out with this film. From the start it feels like a made-for-television program, with more of an emphasis on theatrical aspects than cinematic. Cronenberg is completely unimaginative, lacking any tools to bring to the table. One wonders if Cronenberg has been sent cowering into a cave of safety, wanting desperately for Academy attention more so than critical appreciation. This is Oscar bait that doesn't ultimately work out.

The performances are fine, or at least I suppose they are. Michael Fassbender's wise sobriety backfires as naivete and lack of depth, though not to the point of complete destruction. He simply lacks the commandment of his costars, most obviously Kiera Knightley. She comes onto the stage with such excitement which she even maintains through an odd Russian drawl. Hers is the most radical transformation, but a simple one at that. Viggo Mortensen has a more apt sobriety in his depiction of Sigmund Freud. You can tell he's the forefather of the movement, and yet he's not beyond his own faults.

Vincent Cassel comes in briefly for a time that has important repercussions on Jung, and he's the only one that is acting with a relative normality. By that I mean, he's doing his work as he has always done, regardless of that fact of period drama. Quite often, actors find this need to act differently due to the period setting. Not so in Cassel. The core problem with "A Dangerous Method" is that it isn't suited to the screen, but the stage. The fact of viewing it in an old opera house embellished that quite prevalently. Not to mention the quite straightforward cinematography and the melodramatically pounding score of Howard Shore. It just doesn't flow as organically or intriguingly as it should, and doesn't hold my attention as rapturously as even simple cinema should.

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