David Cronenberg’s features since eXistenZ have grown increasingly grounded in what can only tentatively be called “the real.” Most of his best-known films before the turn of the century used elaborate makeup and special effects to explore his favorite theme, the effect of modern life on our minds and bodies. A Dangerous Method, as more than a few skeptics have gleefully pointed out, is based on a play that is itself based on a book, neither of which could even loosely be classed as science fiction or fantasy. Surely the evidence speaks for itself? Surely that far-out Canadian dude who once made the head-exploding movie, the talking-asshole movie, and The Fly, has gone full respectable-tard?
Tempting as it is – and has been, always – to denounce the filmmaker who, in what we perceive to be their autumnal period, appears to “return” to “traditional” forms, taking the long view can provide richer rewards. Pauline Kael notoriously blasted Sergei Eisenstein for what she perceived, in Ivan the Terrible, to be a regression, a backwards stumble into the stodgy, theatrical realm of his pre-cinema youth. Critics often like to stand guard at the gates of (supposed) innovation and novelty, ever stalwart against the barbarians of discarded forms, like “the stage” and “the literary.” It’s as if we’re still under the whip of dilettante movie critics of the 1930s, trying mightily to redeem the bastard seventh art in the eyes of their huffaluffing, Victorian grandfathers, they that look askance at the horseless carriage.
Working for the first time with august British playwright/screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons, Atonement), Cronenberg not only ignores the warning signs but doubles down, filming A Dangerous Method in the conventional, middle-distance compositional style that recalls the wagon train of white-bread biopics from 1930s Hollywood, such as Alexander’s Ragtime Band and The Story of Louis Pasteur.
Or does he? Cronenberg’s screen spaces, like those of Fritz Lang or Andre de Toth, have always been unnervingly tactile, their strict intersection of lines too precise for comfort, a fussy perfection that seems to repress – and consequently take on the characteristics of – some unnamable malady. With A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg doesn’t rely on a classical shooting style so much as he treats that style as a malleable object that he’s able to annex for his own purposes, finding his way into, under, and around the uncanny marriage of bodies and the way they’re shaped by environments, desires, and histories.
Something that differentiates Cronenberg from a fantasist filmmaker like Lynch – not even remotely to discount the latter, who has long been one of my favorites – is that Lynch’s scripts often rely on a pivot point where he’ll plunge a mundane world into a surreal nightmare. With Cronenberg, the uncanny is inextricable from the mundane. Recall in Videodrome the utter lack of demarcation between Max’s boring, workaday life as a bottom-rung TV producer and the insanity brought on by the Videodrome signal. The quotidian and the oneiric layers infect one another, seamlessly, their symbiosis representing still another iteration of the cross-invasions that occur in countless of his narratives.
Perhaps the greatest risk of all, if you’ve followed the film this far, is in the fact that Keira Knightley’s Sabina Spielrein actually states the above in Hampton’s dialogue; in a beautiful scene, a meeting with Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), she explains her theory of therapeutic treatment in a manner that resembles Eisenstein’s theory of montage, i.e. two shots that are joined together by an edit form a third shot. Which itself, of course, reaches back to Hegel’s triad, and so on. Speaking a film’s thesis out loud is a capital offense, but Cronenberg attempts neither to paint over it, nor does he, in the other direction, amplify its signal. The exchange is exquisite, nevertheless, as are all of the dialogues, beautifully expressed by Mortensen, Knightley (in an unforgettable turn that is simultaneously precisely controlled and utterly batshit), Michael Fassbender, and Vincent Cassel. I don’t know if I derived such enormous pleasure from the film’s well-appointed, period style because of the simple pleasure of taking in such things in the accepted “feast for the senses” manner, or because every moment seemed subtly shaded by the quiet storm that slowly envelops everything in sight. Likely the latter. As Fassbender’s Jung says, there’s nothing simple about pleasure – certainly not when it comes to Cronenberg.