David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method screens twice tonight as a “gala” presentation at the 49th New York Film Festival. Sony Classics will release the film on November 23.
Having mastered the intellectual schlock horror film earlier in his career, Cronenberg now conquers another popular genre, the Euro high-minded biopic. He uses minimalist filmmaking to better showcase the maximum intellectual positioning of the origins and conflicts of three schools of thought: 1) Hunky, sensitive woo-woo mystic bourgeois Jung (Michael Fassbender) 2) lucid and sexual thought-obsessed Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and 3) the unchosen path, neurotic masochist patient turned doctor Sabina (Keira Knightley) who experienced sex as annihilation instead of creation and influenced both men without credit. Using traditional shot-reverse shot techniques judiciously he confidently showcases emotional subtleties and unreconciled opposites: authority vs honesty, patient vs doctor, mind vs. body (or, here, analysis vs spanking). This film seems like a peak in his current phase since eXistenZ (which marked the last film before his “traditional” period and also the first film in his current “mind fuck” period). The restraint of each scene shows the discipline of a filmmaker who is absolutely at his peak.
Though clearly nuanced and adroit, the film also takes risks, most notably in the first twenty minutes with an attention getting performance by the usually bland Keira Knightley as a hysteric who aims to shock with dirty revelations blurted out in a heavy Russian accent. It is too much, intentionally. She deforms her face and body, particularly her mouth, and makes this performed disease as frightening as any body-decaying disease in Cronenberg’s earlier career. Her freaky jutting-jaw also emphasizes that this film, adapted from Christopher Hampton’s play The Talking Cure, is about the physicality of talking, as well as about the abstraction of words. Knightley is rewarded for going all the way with this ugly insanity by being allowed to do something she’s never showed much knack for previously, comedy. In one notable scene, Jung encouragingly tells her that there’s a need for psychologists just like her. “What?” she says, “Insane?” And then flashes a grin, held for a few seconds, that is the funniest moment in her career so far.