Please Note: The screen captures used here are taken from promotional materials provided by Sony Pictures Classics, not the Blu-ray edition under review.
It happens to the best of them, but it's not necessarily a bad thing. I'm talking about the "maturing" of some prominent, long-running filmmakers--John Waters, Pedro Almodovar, David Cronenberg--who started out as more or less notorious, disreputable shockmeisters, making their names through provocateur/gross-out phases many fans probably thought would last forever before taking a midcareer turn toward dreaded "respectability." At a certain point, their particular sensibilities--always noticeably intelligent, bending any exploitative genre trappings to their own concerns and purposes--started to shoot up, away from their underground roots, to break through to the surface with films somehow retaining the unmistakable essence of their visions. For Waters, it was Hairspray; for Almodovar, The Flower of My Secret. After making a faltering first attempt--1993's M. Butterfly--that pleased neither fans, nor critics, nor the masses, Cronenberg went back and mined his proprietary patch of the cinemascape for a few further self-evidently Cronenbergian nuggets, 1995's Crash and 1999's eXistenZ, before inaugurating a seemingly "classier," more straightforwardly dramatic, less (literally) visceral, and all-around excellent stretch of films with 2002's Spider. That film was the final stepping stone putting Cronenberg onto the path that led (distinctively cerebral, evolutionary-humanist POV intact) through 2005's A History of Violence and 2007's Eastern Promises and on to his most recent (and possibly best) picture, A Dangerous Method. This latest Cronenberg--a film about the relationship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, as well as the less-renowned but perhaps equally remarkable, catalytic young woman who associated with them--is a film that takes him further back in the past (and onto more rarefied, explicitly intellectual terrain) than he's ever been, and with a screenplay by period-piece maestro Christopher Hampton ( Dangerous Liaisons, Atonement), no less. So, has Cronenberg cashed in his torture-porn (Videodrome), gynecological-horror Dead Ringers), slimily-gutted-typewriter ( Naked Lunch), violent-car-crash-fetishizing (Crash) credentials to court asininity, drawing us into some tea-sipping, doily-laden slice of stale period politeness? No, indeed. In fact, Hampton's material is so incisive and so very much in keeping with Cronenberg's long-running thematic concerns and questions--and it's been brought to life so beautifully--that in terms both of Cronenberg's artistic development and our gratification as spectators, it's a triumph all around, and one that sacrifices nothing in the way of Cronenberg's usually (and sometimes, again, literally) probing incisiveness to attain its impressive elegance.
Hampton's script hits the ground running, dropping us into a pivotal moment in Dr. Jung's (Michael Fassbender, Fish Tank, Hunger) career, and Cronenberg jars us into the story as the striking opening-credits sequence (letters handwritten by pen, cleverly captured in close-ups so extreme they resemble Rorschach blots) cuts abruptly to what will be the film's most outwardly violent, startling action, as a female patient screaming and writhing in psychosomatic agony is rolled up, in a carriage drawn by stampeding horses, to the psychiatric asylum/institute in the Swiss countryside where the heretofore unknown doctor is plying his trade. This young woman is Sabina Spielrein (Kiera Knightley), whose case will provide the catalyst for Dr. Jung to practice what the most eminent leader in his field of psychiatry, the faraway Dr. Freud (Viggo Mortensen), has called "the talking cure"--what we know as psychoanalysis--as well as to inspire him to initiate a correspondence and develop an invigorating (though ultimately doomed to rancor, as any Oedipus complex-spotting Freudian could tell you) mentor/initiate, father/son relationship with Dr. Freud. It will also reveal how profoundly human these progressive, rigorous idealists are, as Sabina (who is helped immensely by psychoanalysis in overcoming the guilt over her sadomasochistic sexual tendencies that has led to her physical/emotional breakdown and, through her ferociously intense brilliance and hunger for knowledge and important work, becomes Dr. Jung's assistant) and Dr. Jung fall in love head, heart, and body in a way the "free-thinking" but in practice very Protestant-bourgeois Dr. Jung finds threatening to the happy nuclear family he's building with his lovely, stable wife (Sarah Gadon). The rough, messy development of their affair, as well as its painful, potentially scandalous end at the hands of the perhaps too-proper (or even hypocritical) Dr. Jung, provides the film's primary dramatic fuel.
Another threat to Dr. Jung is Dr. Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel, Black Swan), a fellow psychologist and patient whom Dr. Freud sends to his impressive younger colleague and new friend. Gross is a libertine and drug addict who takes the revelations of psychoanalysis to its furthest extremes and jumps to its furthest possible conclusions, which makes him both extremely interesting to Dr. Jung and a troubling, destabilizing influence who encourages him not to repress his attraction to Sabina for the sake of some illusory faithfulness or domestic placidity. Watching and listening to the animated interactions (whether conducted in person or via written correspondence) between Dr. Jung, Dr. Freud, Ms. Spielrein, and Dr. Gross, which usually blur the lines between the personal, professional, erotic, intellectual, and emotional in a way endemic to their work in psychology, is bracing and uncomfortable (and if that's so for us, it must have felt truly dangerous and revolutionary for these characters in their more buttoned-up time and place). Those exchanges, sharply written by Hampton (who is at his Dangerous Liaisons best here), are A Dangerous Method's equivalent to the drilled-in, orifice-like, painful-looking yet highly sought-after flesh portals in eXistenZ; the new, highly controversial psychoanalytical perspective each of the characters is attempting to apply to their lived experience is, as seen through Cronenberg's lens, to their period what video/cable technology was to Videodrome's: an unfamiliar, explosively powerful new tool whose properties and necessary precautions are as-yet unknown, a dangerous method indeed.
This is how A Dangerous Method, at first glance so opposed to Cronenberg's usual modus operandi, comes to seem the culmination (or at least a very high peak) of the overarching creative inspiration and philosophical questioning that runs through all his work: Characters in Cronenberg are always playing with fire, and they don't know whether the result will bring them to groundbreaking glory or destroy them in some physical and/or emotional way, but it has to be done for the sake of experimentation, knowledge, and possibly a better understanding of and improvement in human existence. When it comes to how the film looks and feels, too, there is continuity with the rest of Cronenberg's filmography, with his standard cerebral restraint subtly modified, as it has been in all his best films, to suit the subject and characters at hand, but all the more recognizable for that. This instance in Cronenberg's decades-long collaboration with director of photography Peter Suschitzky may surpass all the striking images they've made together to date; "clinical," in Cronenberg's world, and particularly in A Dangerous Method, is not always a criticism, since it implies the possibility of breakthrough and progression/healing as well as that of pain and death, and Suschitzky finds or makes the light in all the film's exteriors and interiors somehow both clean and warm (not hot; this is finely modulated, restrained, precise work) and slightly foreboding, unnatural, evoking a world in which taking a leisurely promenade, venturing out for a sail on the lake, or conducting a tortuous psychotherapy session all have an equal potential for beauty, emotion, and grandeur as well as destruction, disintegration, or loss of self. It's one of Cronenberg's visually best-considered, most pleasing works, which is saying something. There's one scene in particular, in which Dr. Jung and his new assistant Sabina perform an experiment on Mrs. Jung using an apparatus meant to read the subject's subconscious, that is so beautifully played, blocked, framed, composed, and edited, it feels like the tools of cinema honed to perfection, succinctly and visually conveying so much emotion, dramatic progression, and multiple concurrent clues to the filmmaker's sensibility--how we're meant to feel toward the people and actions we're being shown. And that's only the most salient, indelible example of the finely tuned visual intuitiveness we're treated to throughout.
The performances have to be remarked upon, too. Mortensen very wisely parlayed his huge Lord of the Rings celebrity into an anti-leading-man collaboration with Cronenberg on A History of Violence, and the two haven't looked back; here, he accepts the greatest challenge yet from his director/collaborator and acquits himself with ease (and no small amount of sardonic humor, which works wonderfully for the portrayal of a self-conscious, not entirely un-gleeful bearer of bad news like Freud). Fassbender has by now proven himself up to virtually any role that catches his eye, and his straight-backed, wide-eyed, hearty-romantic Aryan Jung (who himself, at the end of the film, has some unsettling premonitions about the continent-shattering things the then relatively benign, outdoorsy-healthy concept "Aryan" might come to mean over the coming century) comes off marvelously; playing reticent is a difficult and unshowy task, but he does it perfectly. And then there's Knightley, who, in stark contrast to her co-stars, has a physically demanding, risky role as a sufferer of textbook-definition hysteria--a convulsive, gesticulating, face-twisting condition that she plays fearlessly as she exhibits the ungainly, exaggerated movements that are the only honest way to convey the physicality of hysteria. Cassel, for his part, is (perhaps unsurprisingly) fluent in the attitudinizing and postures of impish, renegade subversiveness. All told, this is a fantastically cast film; director and stars were clearly on the same page, working in perfect tandem to tell the story of the characters, their ideas, and their experiences from a deep, shared understanding and vision.
Cronenberg territory is the place where human flesh meets and is altered by technology, where the human mind and heart meet and are altered by new ideas, and in A Dangerous Method, the filmmaker navigates the ambivalence of that meeting place with a rare, exceptionally well-struck balancing (mirroring the requirements of the psychotherapeutic process the film's protagonists are developing) of observational detachment and tender empathy. Perhaps he has dug into this story with such particular skill and incisiveness because it is one example (counterbalancing the tragic misadventure he's depicted elsewhere, e.g., The Fly) of such an experiment being demonstrably worthwhile, rewarding the suffering and heartbreak of scientific/philosophical pioneers with true change and real new (r)evolutionary potential. They may not have been able to see it in a way that would compensate for all the professional and personal trials they went through, but their curiosity and sacrifice changed the world.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
Perhaps it's because of Sony's long, intimate, proprietary relationship with the Blu-ray format, but along with Incendies (also released by Sony Classics), A Dangerous Method has simply one of the most perfect transfers (AVC-encoded, 1080/24p-mastered, at the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1) I've seen yet, with exact-as-possible fidelity to D.P. Peter Suschitzky's rich, warm, clean/subdued but subtly variegated lighting. Blacks are solid as can be, and flesh tones are natural and minus a trace of any mottling or other oddities to which filmed skin can be prone when transferring film to digital. The ideal balance has been struck noise reduction-wise, with fine celluloid texture allowed to render the experience cinematic without the faintest trace of any aliasing, edge enhancement, or other artifacts to be seen anywhere. In short, the film looks magnificent on this Blu-ray edition, even by the uniformly high standards of the format.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is also superb, rendering the film's sound design in multiple deep, full, aurally sensuous, and resonant layers, and conveying the precise timbre and every nuance of Howard Shore's unusually multifaceted score, with perfect balance and dimensionality throughout and not a single moment of any kind of distortion to be heard.
--As could be expected, Cronenberg has a deliberate, measured, and thoughtful way of speaking in the feature audio commentary, but he manages to discuss virtually every relevant aspect of the film, from its content and meaning to very specific technical details of each scene. Some tidbits: More CGI/special effects were used in this film than any other Cronenberg has made; he disdains storyboards and considers them a "security blanket"; and he ferociously disputes the apparently oft-proffered criticism that Knightley's performance is in any way exaggerated, raw, or even slightly inaccurate when it comes to its depiction of both her character and the diagnosable condition of hysteria (Cronenberg cites the detailed studies he made of this and most other aspects of the film). There's much more, too; it's an extraordinarily engaging, coherent, and worthwhile commentary.
--A "making-of" featurette that's fairly standard-issue, with the actors and director speaking of the film, its story, their characters, and their process in general, basic, introductory terms. More detailed and interesting is AFI's Harold Lloyd Master Seminar with David Cronenberg, in which the director comments on his thinking and way of working in general and vis-à-vis A Dangerous Method in particular, and responds to specific questions taken from an AFI audience of film students, speaking to them (and, by extension, to us) as one filmmaker to those who, if not actual aspiring filmmakers ourselves, have a serious interest.
--The film's theatrical trailer, along with a handful of previews for other upcoming Blu-ray and theatrical Sony Pictures Classics releases.
Unlikely as it may seem, David Cronenberg--he of The Fly and The Dead Zone--has topped himself with a period-piece biopic set not long after the turn of the last century. By telling the story of the conventionally-living but bravely curious major discoverers and innovators of psychoanalysis, C.J. Jung and Sigmund Freud, and their provocative, galvanizing interactions with an extraordinary young woman and a radical colleague, Cronenberg expands the scope of his long-running thematic obsession--the confrontation of human beings, both mentally and physically, with challenging, unknown, intriguing but frightening new technologies and concepts--and proves them more flexible and further-reaching than one might ever have thought possible. At every level--dramatic/performative, writing/narrative/dialogue, visual/aesthetic--A Dangerous Method is an achievement propelled by the creative and technical assurance of everyone involved; the dedication, both behind and in front of the camera, to what the film is about is palpable in every frame as it unspools the stories of these intellectual pioneers and the personally cataclysmic effects--the curative revelations and tolls they experienced--on their lives that came as a result of their world-changing trail blazing. It's a smart-to-its-core, deeply engaged and impassionate film that's both among the very best of last year and a high point--maybe the highest--in Cronenberg's body of work, one that could not be too Highly Recommended.