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Bodice Horror: David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method (2011) – DVD review

June 21, 2012 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

Dangerous? This is U-certificate compared to Cronenberg’s usual body horror. But there is method (and even a dose of self-reflexive satire) in his madness.

A Dangerous Method 2011 David Cronenberg Keira Knightley Michael Fassbender

A Dangerous Method
(David Cronenberg, 2011)

The first thing that strikes you about A Dangerous Method is how restrained it is for a David Cronenberg film. This is, after all, the guy who made his living creating parasitic worms that turned people homicidally horny; telepaths who exploded other telepath’s heads; or cable TV that gave men vaginal wounds. Surely, telling the meeting of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung – practically the origins story of Cronenberg’s psychoanalytical approach to cinema – would have at least a smidgeon of deranged gore?  Nope: even the dreams they recount to each other are relatively mild.

But long-term followers of Cronenberg will know that he’s long since abandoned the new flesh (long live the new flesh) in favour of acute psychological drama.  A Dangerous Method is a microcosm of his whole career.  It begins with Keira Knightley, raving like a lunatic and jutting her jaw like she’s morphing into a Mugwump… but it’s not long before she’s “cured” of outward signs of madness and faced with the prospect of going straight. At which point, her doctor, Jung, begins to doubt his own grip on his sanity, mimicking the manner in which audiences were taken by surprise by the commercial one-two of Cronenberg’s last two films, the deceptively normal A History Of Violence And Eastern Promises.

Cronenberg is a canny bugger. After toying with expectations in those films – both of which gradually racheted up the body count – this time he’s actually produced a film that is exactly what it appears: a relationship drama about the sex lives of the psychoanalysts.  For a Cronenberg fan, this is even more disconcerting than Jeff Goldblum melting a guy’s foot off with fly-acid, and proof of a director in absolute control, confident enough to put his usual props back in the cupboard.

Of course, there’s a danger in this most button-pushing of directors flirting with conventional approach, as anybody who’s seen the misfiring M. Butterfly (with its mix of gender-bending premise and utterly flat technique) will know.  This time, though, Cronenberg has made a film that, while disappointing to those who demand the director plays allegiance to his own history of violence, is Cronenberg to the core.

In its stately pace, refined period detail and serious subject, this looks like exactly the Oscar-baiting prestige pic that Cronenberg doesn’t make – but that’s the point. Cronenberg has always deployed clinical framing and cutting to create a fastidious, fusspot surface, in order to give his transgressive body horror something to kick against.  Without that eruption, the only place for us to go is into the performances and it’s here that Cronenberg reveals his gameplan.

Great performances are customary from this director, but A Dangerous Method leaves his actors the most exposed they’ve been since Jeremy Irons went mano a mano with himself in Dead Ringers.  Cleverly, the film’s narrative – a bizarre love triangle in which Jung is torn between his repressed sexuality and his adherence to the scientific detachment of Freud – becomes a satire of Cronenberg’s own career.

As if they weren’t enough hinges between Jung and Freud (the two are opposed in methodology, character, wealth, class and race), they also represent the difference between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Cronenberg.  Michael Fassbender, who acts with stiff-backed decorum but secretly wants to whip his patient/lover Sabine Spielrein ass-raw, is ‘old’ Cronenberg: an academic who gets his rocks off on sex and violence.  Fassbender’s studied intelligence transforms the stuffy conformity of the period-prestige genre in increments, simply because of the heat he lets off as his secret longing spills out.

In contrast, Mortensen is the ‘new.’  This is the star and director’s third collaboration in a row, and his status as most valued player is rewarded by getting to have some fun after the coiled intensity of their earlier films.  Mortensen plays Freud as film director, sitting back in his chair, cigar in hand, giving the occasional ‘hmm’ in answer to prospective problems, and it’s impossible to watch him without imagining that this is exactly how Cronenberg himself behaves on set.  Whenever Mortensen is on screen, this is close to being Cronenberg’s first comedy, a droll study of how silly people are – even the ones with a deeper insight than most into what makes us tick.

So where does that leave Keira Knightley?  Well, obviously, she’s the ‘disease’ – the slug in Shivers, the spike in Rabid, the Videodrome in Videodrome.  It’s her presence alone that lifts the lid on the Pandora’s Box of Jung’s confused psyche.  I’ve always found Knightley a limited actress, but Cronenberg turns those limitations to the film’s advantage.  Her performance is wild, ragged, cringingly gauche in some areas but lucid and revelatory in others.  The unpredictability is enough to make a telepath’s head explode.

A Dangerous Method is released on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday 25th June. Extras on the DVD include a typically erudite commentary by David Cronenberg and a short ‘making of’ featurette, but it’s a shame they missed the opportunity of a more in-depth look about the real-life Freud, Jung and Spielrein.

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