Review: David Cronenberg’s oddly restrained ‘A Dangerous Method’ never quite connects

David Cronenberg is one of my favorite directors of all time.  His body of work, and I use that word knowing full well it has a double meaning when you’re referring to Cronenberg, is one of the most demanding and rigorously intellectual of anyone in any genre.  He has long been fascinated by the relationship we have with the bodies we occupy, and he successfully made the jump from overt horror to adult-minded drama, something not every filmmaker is able to accomplish.

Yes, Wes Craven, we all still remember “Music Of The Heart.”

When Cronenberg signed on for “A Dangerous Method,” it sounded like a perfect match between filmmaker and material.  After all, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung were two of the men who helped define the vocabulary we still use to discuss sexual psychology, and Cronenerg is, after all, the guy who made “Crash.”  Not the silly “racism is bad” one, but the “hey, I could always use that hole” version.  This is a man who knows kink.  This is a man who has pushed boundaries so hard they’ve crumbled.  Who else would think to put a VHS-eating vagina in James Woods’s chest?  I walked into “A Dangerous Method” wide open and ready for anything.

What a drag, then, to report that the film is misconceived, dramatically turgid, and ultimately feels like a surface treatment of ideas that deserve better.  Scripted by Christopher Hampton from his own play “The Talking Cure” and the John Kerr book “A Most Dangerous Method,” this is a film that tap-dances around its subject to such a degree that it becomes almost infuriating.  I don’t understand how you make a movie about this subject matter that has no kink, no heat, no pulse.  Viggo Mortensen, one of the most interesting collaborators that Cronenberg has ever had, is almost wasted here.  He’s used as punctuation at best, Freud showing up from time to time to deliver a few clever lines and tut-tut Michael Fassbender’s Jung.  It feels very stage-bound, but even seeing this in a theatrical setting, it would still be a bit of a thudding bore.

The film deals with Jung and his treatment of a particular patient, a Russian Jew named Sabina Spielrein.  Kiera Knightley plays her, and while I’m not the biggest fan of Knightley’s work in general, I’ll give her this.  She’s 100% dedicated to playing this character, initially gripped by a crippling hysteria, and she makes some big choices.  I’m not sure it all worked for me, and there are places where it feels very mannered, like you can see her making actor’s choices.  But she is alive in the role in a way that Fassbender and Mortensen are not, and that confounds me.  Fassbender has proven himself to be one of the more interesting guys out there right now, and yet this role is a straightjacket for him, rigid and uninteresting.  Jung’s meant to be struggling with his intellectual and sexual sides in the film, but we don’t really see that battle between the mental and the carnal.  It’s spoken of, but it’s not shown.  If a film can make a scene involving Fassbender spanking a mostly-naked Knightley boring, something has gone very wrong.

It’s a handsomely made film, and it’s easy to watch.  Longtime Cronenberg collaborators like photographer Peter Suschitzky and composer Howard Shore both do solid work here, and I have no doubt this is exactly the film that Cronenberg set out to make.  As always, it is controlled and carefully considered, and it feels like he got what he wanted from his cast.  It just seems to be a case of a misfire at the conceptual level.  There’s one stretch in the film where things threaten to heat up, when Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel) shows up at Jung’s clinic, and every time Cassel is onscreen, it’s interesting.  Watch him move around Jung’s office during their first interview.  It’s impossible to take your eyes off of what Cassel is doing.  But the rest of the film just doesn’t have that same spark, that sense of something lived instead of designed.  It feels antiseptic.  It feels like a term paper that someone filmed.

I don’t like writing a review like this.  I have so much respect for Cronenberg as a thinker and as a filmmaker, but this feels to me like “M. Butterfly,” the only other film where I feel like he was just dead wrong for the project, and like that film, there’s a false quality that infects everything.  I certainly don’t need every David Cronenberg film to be the same, and perhaps he intentionally took every single thing out of this film that might be thought of his “typical” style, but in running from his own nature, Cronenberg has betrayed the subject matter, and the result is a movie that is in no way dangerous.  It is too sterile, too safe for its own title, and I can’t imagine ever needing to see it again.

“A Dangerous Method” will be released to theaters on November 23, 2011.