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A Dangerous Method Is an Action Movie for Grownups

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In A Dangerous Method, which just premiered at the New York Film Festival, David Cronenberg has fashioned the thinking person's action movie. Instead of cars exploding and weapons blasting, great minds duel over the forces driving human behavior during the period that saw the burgeoning of psychoanalysis.

That this three-way biopic is so textured and rich makes it hard to sum up. The short version: Hugging historical fact, Method depicts the impassioned triangle formed by fledgling psychiatrist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), his mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and the troubled yet gifted patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) who comes between them. Seduced by the challenge of an impossible case, the ambitious Jung takes on Sabina as his patient, attempting to cure her hysteria with the new "talking cure." Turns out she has a daddy fetish and was aroused by his beatings. Seduced by her intelligence and beauty, the married Jung violates the doctor/patient relationship and becomes Sabina's lover, salting their encounters with the thrashings she finds exciting. Guilt over professional ethics triggers Jung's breakup with Sabina. She becomes Freud's patient -- and eventually a pioneering child psychologist -- while Jung and Freud part ways..

I recently sat down with director David Cronenberg to discuss the challenge of capturing these complex and fascinating figures on screen.

Erica Abeel: The film was originally a play, The Talking Cure by Christopher Hampton. Yet unlike some theater to screen adaptations, you've succeeded in opening it up.

David Cronenberg: Ironically it was a screenplay before it was a play. Christopher had originally written it for Julia Roberts to play Sabina about 17 years ago and for various reasons the movie didn't happen. But it wasn't hard for me to see that play as a movie. The theater constrained it. Because you know there are scenes that take place at the vast Burgholzi [asylum] and on Lake Zurich. The play was artificially compressed. So to make it a movie was just to give it a normal breathing space.

EA: The movie dramatizes ideas and the period's intellectual ferment with whip-smart dialogue between brilliant people. It's rare to see that in cinema today.

DC: It's so rare. The idea in cinema today -- especially, of course, in Hollywood -- is that any obsessiveness or dynamism has to do with physical action and never with speech and ideas. These people were not only incredibly articulate -- they were passionate about their ideas. And the ideas were not just abstractions; they wanted to incorporate them in their own lives, bodies, relationships. It was a great era. These people were all deeply cultured and artistically aware and that's what I got excited about.

EA: A lot of indie films seem to celebrate mumbling, bumbling and general inarticulateness.

DC: That was true of On the Waterfront. But that was the era of socially responsible movies. The feeling was there could be poetry amongst people even if they weren't educated. But what you are commenting on is that anti-intellectual is seen as a positive thing, which is kind of disastrous really, and cuts out such potential for movies. For me what is essentially cinematic is a human face speaking. That's what we shoot the most, as filmmakers. I don't find that innately theatrical. I find that cinematic. If you've got a fantastic face saying amazing things you've really got something.

EA: How did you assemble your cast?

DC: Casting is a black art. People don't know what you're juggling. A Dangerous Method is a Canadian/German co- production. Viggo has a Danish passport. There are no Americans in this movie because of the co-production agreement. You can't just cast anybody you want. They have to want to be in the movie, you have to be able to afford them, they have to be available, and the right age.

EA: The quirkiest choice is Viggo Mortensen as Freud.

DA: This is not the grandfatherly, ailing Freud that everyone knows. In the film -- he's fifty at the time -- he's a handsome, charismatic, virile leader of a disparate group, whipping them into an actual movement that was very successful. Jung was only twenty-nine when we meet him, ambitious, charismatic, very attractive to women. Once you have that handle on the characters and dispense with stereotypical ideas of what these guys were and go to what the reality was, it gets exciting and you can think of Viggo as Freud. It's not obvious casting, but it works.

EA: In the hysteria scenes in the beginning, I thought Keira Knightley might be over-acting.

DC: You were wrong to think she was overacting. You had to blame me for that. If I felt she was overacting, I'd just have to say tone it down and she would. But you have to understand: that was an accurate portrayal of hysteria. She's brought to a clinic because she can't function; she's been kicked out of other asylums because they can't deal with her. I have to tell you, the audience, why she's in such bad shape and needs to be incarcerated in an asylum. She can't just sit there and be mildly neurotic. We know what her symptoms were from Jung's paper. Hers is actually a very subdued portrayal of hysteria. When you see footage of hysterical patients -- which exists -- it's unwatchable. So we had to find the right level.

EA: In past films you've shown a penchant for violence and transgression. Would you say the spanky-panky element is a Cronenberg signature?

DC: But Sabina's symptoms were exactly that. It's in Christopher Hampton's screenplay and well documented. She was aroused when her father beat her. That's not me, that's her.

EA: Still, your inclusion of that element in her scenes with Jung gives the relationship a kinky flavor.

DC: These obsessive, passionate people were trying to incorporate their own ideas into their lives. Otto Gross [a renegade shrink] encouraged Jung to sleep with his patients because he believed it therapeutic.

Gross: "You should take [Sabina] somewhere and thrash her within an inch of her life. That's obviously what she wants. Why deny her such a simple pleasure?"
Jung: "Pleasure is never simple, as you know."
Gross: "Of course it is. That's why we're driving ourselves crazy. Because we complicate these things that are actually very straightforward."
He did really say that to Jung, we have the letter. It was not much of a jump that Jung should give her what she wanted, which was a kind of catharsis to relive the beatings that her father gave her, but in an adult erotic relationship. Like an exorcism of her father.

EA: So it was therapeutic on Jung's part?

DC: We played it that way. If you watch Jung's face, you see that he's not really enjoying it. He's a little disconcerted, a little disturbed, but he's doing it for her. And she meanwhile, in one of the scenes she was watching herself. They were the kind of people who, even while they were having sex, would be observing themselves and noticing their own reactions and incorporating that into their theories. Until she had sex Sabina could not have come up with the death instinct and the idea of the dissolution of the personality during the sex act. It's all very straightforward, and not very kinky. Well, maybe a little bit.

EA: I was also struck by Freud's solidarity with Sabina as a fellow Jew.

DC: Freud was very aware of his Jewishness and that his psychoanalytic movement could be dismissed as Jewish mysticism because everybody involved were Jews. He really wanted Jung to lead the movement. He was a Swiss German Christian, and reputable, and that meant the movement would have more credibility. When that collapsed, Freud felt, This is natural that I should be betrayed by an Aryan. We're back to being all Jews together and that includes you Miss Spielrein, who have now been rejected by your lover. As a Jew you should expect this. Freud was being a little paranoid. The times were very anti-Semitic. To be a Jew [in Vienna] meant you were a second class citizen, if not third.

EA: AS Jung Fassbender is brilliant at conveying a kind of starchy coldness.

DC: What's touching is that only at the end of the movie do you realize how much in love Jung was with Sabina and how crushing it was to him to lose her.

In A Dangerous Method, which just premiered at the New York Film Festival, David Cronenberg has fashioned the thinking person's action movie. Instead of cars exploding and weapons blasting, great minds duel over the forces driving human behavior during the period that saw the burgeoning of psychoanalysis.

That this three-way biopic is so textured and rich makes it hard to sum up. The short version: Hugging historical fact, Method depicts the impassioned triangle formed by fledgling psychiatrist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), his mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and the troubled yet gifted patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) who comes between them. Seduced by the challenge of an impossible case, the ambitious Jung takes on Sabina as his patient, attempting to cure her hysteria with the new "talking cure." Turns out she has a daddy fetish and was aroused by his beatings. Seduced by her intelligence and beauty, the married Jung violates the doctor/patient relationship and becomes Sabina's lover, salting their encounters with the thrashings she finds exciting. Guilt over professional ethics triggers Jung's breakup with Sabina. She becomes Freud's patient -- and eventually a pioneering child psychologist -- while Jung and Freud part ways..

I recently sat down with director David Cronenberg to discuss the challenge of capturing these complex and fascinating figures on screen.

Erica Abeel: The film was originally a play, The Talking Cure by Christopher Hampton. Yet unlike some theater to screen adaptations, you've succeeded in opening it up.

David Cronenberg: Ironically it was a screenplay before it was a play. Christopher had originally written it for Julia Roberts to play Sabina about 17 years ago and for various reasons the movie didn't happen. But it wasn't hard for me to see that play as a movie. The theater constrained it. Because you know there are scenes that take place at the vast Burgholzi [asylum] and on Lake Zurich. The play was artificially compressed. So to make it a movie was just to give it a normal breathing space.

EA: The movie dramatizes ideas and the period's intellectual ferment with whip-smart dialogue between brilliant people. It's rare to see that in cinema today.

DC: It's so rare. The idea in cinema today -- especially, of course, in Hollywood -- is that any obsessiveness or dynamism has to do with physical action and never with speech and ideas. These people were not only incredibly articulate -- they were passionate about their ideas. And the ideas were not just abstractions; they wanted to incorporate them in their own lives, bodies, relationships. It was a great era. These people were all deeply cultured and artistically aware and that's what I got excited about.

EA: A lot of indie films seem to celebrate mumbling, bumbling and general inarticulateness.

DC: That was true of On the Waterfront. But that was the era of socially responsible movies. The feeling was there could be poetry amongst people even if they weren't educated. But what you are commenting on is that anti-intellectual is seen as a positive thing, which is kind of disastrous really, and cuts out such potential for movies. For me what is essentially cinematic is a human face speaking. That's what we shoot the most, as filmmakers. I don't find that innately theatrical. I find that cinematic. If you've got a fantastic face saying amazing things you've really got something.

EA: How did you assemble your cast?

DC: Casting is a black art. People don't know what you're juggling. A Dangerous Method is a Canadian/German co- production. Viggo has a Danish passport. There are no Americans in this movie because of the co-production agreement. You can't just cast anybody you want. They have to want to be in the movie, you have to be able to afford them, they have to be available, and the right age.

EA: The quirkiest choice is Viggo Mortensen as Freud.

DA: This is not the grandfatherly, ailing Freud that everyone knows. In the film -- he's fifty at the time -- he's a handsome, charismatic, virile leader of a disparate group, whipping them into an actual movement that was very successful. Jung was only twenty-nine when we meet him, ambitious, charismatic, very attractive to women. Once you have that handle on the characters and dispense with stereotypical ideas of what these guys were and go to what the reality was, it gets exciting and you can think of Viggo as Freud. It's not obvious casting, but it works.

EA: In the hysteria scenes in the beginning, I thought Keira Knightley might be over-acting.

DC: You were wrong to think she was overacting. You had to blame me for that. If I felt she was overacting, I'd just have to say tone it down and she would. But you have to understand: that was an accurate portrayal of hysteria. She's brought to a clinic because she can't function; she's been kicked out of other asylums because they can't deal with her. I have to tell you, the audience, why she's in such bad shape and needs to be incarcerated in an asylum. She can't just sit there and be mildly neurotic. We know what her symptoms were from Jung's paper. Hers is actually a very subdued portrayal of hysteria. When you see footage of hysterical patients -- which exists -- it's unwatchable. So we had to find the right level.

EA: In past films you've shown a penchant for violence and transgression. Would you say the spanky-panky element is a Cronenberg signature?

DC: But Sabina's symptoms were exactly that. It's in Christopher Hampton's screenplay and well documented. She was aroused when her father beat her. That's not me, that's her.

EA: Still, your inclusion of that element in her scenes with Jung gives the relationship a kinky flavor.

DC: These obsessive, passionate people were trying to incorporate their own ideas into their lives. Otto Gross [a renegade shrink] encouraged Jung to sleep with his patients because he believed it therapeutic.

Gross: "You should take [Sabina] somewhere and thrash her within an inch of her life. That's obviously what she wants. Why deny her such a simple pleasure?"
Jung: "Pleasure is never simple, as you know."
Gross: "Of course it is. That's why we're driving ourselves crazy. Because we complicate these things that are actually very straightforward."
He did really say that to Jung, we have the letter. It was not much of a jump that Jung should give her what she wanted, which was a kind of catharsis to relive the beatings that her father gave her, but in an adult erotic relationship. Like an exorcism of her father.

EA: So it was therapeutic on Jung's part?

DC: We played it that way. If you watch Jung's face, you see that he's not really enjoying it. He's a little disconcerted, a little disturbed, but he's doing it for her. And she meanwhile, in one of the scenes she was watching herself. They were the kind of people who, even while they were having sex, would be observing themselves and noticing their own reactions and incorporating that into their theories. Until she had sex Sabina could not have come up with the death instinct and the idea of the dissolution of the personality during the sex act. It's all very straightforward, and not very kinky. Well, maybe a little bit.

EA: I was also struck by Freud's solidarity with Sabina as a fellow Jew.

DC: Freud was very aware of his Jewishness and that his psychoanalytic movement could be dismissed as Jewish mysticism because everybody involved were Jews. He really wanted Jung to lead the movement. He was a Swiss German Christian, and reputable, and that meant the movement would have more credibility. When that collapsed, Freud felt, This is natural that I should be betrayed by an Aryan. We're back to being all Jews together and that includes you Miss Spielrein, who have now been rejected by your lover. As a Jew you should expect this. Freud was being a little paranoid. The times were very anti-Semitic. To be a Jew [in Vienna] meant you were a second class citizen, if not third.

EA: AS Jung Fassbender is brilliant at conveying a kind of starchy coldness.

DC: What's touching is that only at the end of the movie do you realize how much in love Jung was with Sabina and how crushing it was to him to lose her.

A Dangerous Method opens theatrically November 23.