Wednesday, October 5, 2011

New York premiere of "A Dangerous Method"

A Dangerous Method (UK/Canada/Germany; 2011)
Directed by David Cronenberg
Screenplay by Christopher Hampton
99 minutes

David Cronenberg, a filmmaker with a peerless grasp on the mysteries of the mind and the body, turns his attention to a seminal chapter in the founding of psychoanalysis. Adapted from Christopher Hampton’s play A Talking Cure, A Dangerous Method charts the relationship between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and his protégé turned dissenter Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), as it was shaped by the case of Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a young Russian Jewish patient of Jung’s. Cronenberg brilliantly dramatizes not just the rivalry and rupture between two pioneers who defined a field but also the birth of their groundbreaking theories of the unconscious and the forces of Eros and Thanatos. Featuring an electrifying trio of lead actors, who turn near-mythic figures into flesh and blood, this is a film of tremendous vigor and ambition, a historical drama that brings ideas to life. A Sony Pictures Classics release.

Forget trying to get tickets for the New York Film Festival's two presentations of A Dangerous Method this evening at 6pm and 8:30pm. They're long gone. It was hard enough getting into yesterday's press screening, but I made it! As a longtime Jung fan--his work has deeply influenced my own development and counseling practice--I took great interest in David Cronenberg's romantic dramatization of a curious transitional moment in the great healer's career and life.

Based on a play by Christopher Hampton and diligent research into correspondence and the period, A Dangerous Method stars Michael Fassbender (Carl Jung), Viggo Mortensen (Sigmund Freud) and Keira Knightley (Sabina Spielrein) along with powerful supporting turns by Vincent Cassel (Otto Gross) and Sarah Gadon (Emma Jung). A Dangerous Method was filmed in Cologne and near the Alps at Lake Constance on the Rhine.

The opening scene barrels towards you, thrusting captive, mentally-ill Sabina Spielrein into your face. She bellows and struggles as a carriage hurtles her towards a hospital where she will meet Jung and become his patient. Keira Knightley's physical transformation in this and many subsequent scenes is wrenching. Under Cronenberg's direction, she works and strains that familiar jutting visage and angular frame and those vulnerable, melancholy eyes to great effect. Watching scenes like this, I thought the actress might be overdoing it. But--as Cronenberg explained in a post-screening Q&A--Spielrein's documented physical behavior was far more tortured and alarming.

In Jung's office, the camera shifts us from Spielrein's perspective (looking up at the doctor) to his (looking down on the patient), giving the audience a visceral sense of the indeed dangerous imbalance of power. Things will get stranger and more dangerous as the brilliant young analyst and his also secretly brilliant patient--the masochistic daughter of a brutal father--commence treatment and, over time, mentorship and an unethical, clandestine affair.

As her disturbing secrets spill under Jung's careful, insightful questioning, the doom-eager Spielrein concludes "There's no hope for me. I'm filthy and corrupt. I must never be let out of here."

Of course, we will learn that she is no such thing as, under Jung's care and propelled by love of him, she unfolds her own true insightful self, eventually becoming an analyst, too. But in these early scenes, Cronenberg contrasts her trauma and turmoil with the world of orderly, if static, domesticity that is the wealthy Jung household--every clean, gleaming detail of decor in place and just so.

A sub-theme contrasting the Swiss-German Jung--whose wife Emma provides the high level of living while dutifully tamping down her sensuality and her own intellectual brilliance--and the Russian Jewish Spielrein becomes even more pronounced as Sigmund Freud first takes Jung under his wing and then rejects him. Freud, aware of his outsider status as a Jew in Vienna and fiercely protective of his theories and adherents, challenges every new sign that Jung is moving towards ideas and behaviors that could bring the fledgling science of psychoanalysis crashing down around their heads.

In truth, Jung is unraveling and doing so in ways that will bring deep pain to himself and others. The ultimate transformation in this, the flowering of Jungian theory and practice, lies way in the future beyond Jung's suffering and beyond the scope of this film. Cronenberg leads us across a treacherous footbridge then stops just short of land.

The casting of the German-born Irish actor Fassbender, an irrepressibly charming hottie, and Cassel, whose uneven features suit his Trickster-ish role, are master strokes, but the entire cast is very fine.

Be sure to see A Dangerous Method when it opens in US theaters in late November.

A presentation of The 49th New York Film Festival
Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center
Broadway and 65th Street, Manhattan

Subway: #1 local train to 66th Street/Lincoln Center Station
Bus: The M5, M7, M10, M11, M66 and M104 bus lines all stop within one block of Lincoln Center.

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