Monday, February 27, 2012

A Dangerous Method: Analysis as Comedy

Keira Knightley & Michael Fassbender star in A Dangerous Method

In the late 1960s and the 1970s, psychoanalysis, long a staple of thrillers and drawing-room melodramas, found its way into stage and screen comedy. Not only did we gain admittance into the characters’ conversations with their analysts (the therapy session was almost a staple of Paul Mazursky’s early movies) but the protagonists of movies like Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and plays like John Guare’s Bosoms and Neglect spoke naturally in the intricate, unshackled language of the analysand, casting their own chaotic lives and messy relationships in Freudian terms. These movies and plays, which simultaneously satirized analysis as self-involved navel gazing and took it seriously, were intended for literate, sophisticated audiences for whom therapy was as much a part of living in experimental times as leftist politics and smoking pot. David Cronenberg’s marvelous A Dangerous Method, which Christopher Hampton adapted from his play The Talking Cure (based on John Kerr’s book The Most Dangerous Method), is the ultimate analysand comedy. It would have to be, since the characters are Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Jung’s most infamous patient (and lover) Sabina Spielrein. It’s an ingenious idea: what better subject is there for comedy than the early days of psychology, when the pioneers made up the rules as they went along and violated them at the same time?

The film takes place between 1905 and 1913. It begins in Zürich, where Jung (Michael Fassbender) elects to try out Freud’s “talking cure” on Sabina (Keira Knightley) at the Burghölzi Clinic. She’s a wealthy Russian Jew who arrives in a state of hysteria. She has to be dragged out of her carriage, and when Jung begins to analyze her she behaves like a woman who’s plagued by fits: she continually pitches forward as she were trying to twist herself out of a bind, and when she speaks she grits her teeth and juts her chin out, as if getting the words out required hard labor from every facial muscle. But she’s a cultivated young woman of singular intellectual promise – she wants to become a doctor – and her acts of rebellion against the clinic staff are marked with a ferocious wit. Jung’s civilized, respectful approach has a becalming effect on her. He seems to be the only one who can control her (she’s at her worst when he’s on leave, discharging his civic obligation by treating soldiers as an ordinary doctor), especially once he has coaxed her into talking about her masochistic sexual desires, which stem from the beatings she received from her father when she was a child. Encouraging her medical ambitions, he asks her to help him administer a word association test and calculate its results, and he’s impressed by her insight; she even deduces that the subject is Jung’s wife Emma (Sarah Gadon). Sabina becomes not only Jung’s triumph (he cures her of her hysteria) but his most brilliant student.

Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud
Hampton’s play, which travels back and forth between Switzerland (first Zürich and then Küsnacht) and Freud’s Vienna, is a series of short scenes, almost all two-handers: between Jung and Sabina, Jung and his worry-wart wife Emma (who keeps apologizing for the state of her body when she’s pregnant, and for bearing him daughters instead of sons), Jung and Freud (Viggo Mortensen), Jung and Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), a patient Freud sends him, and eventually Freud and Sabina. The movie retains that structure but Cronenberg fills out these encounters by working up the settings (designed by James McAteer) and, with the help of his usual cinematographer, the prodigious Peter Suschitzky, lending them a lush, painterly visual style.  Hampton elaborates a little on his play and he makes only one significant omission, a wise one: a flash forward just before intermission to Sabina’s death at the hands of the Nazis in 1942, which is footnoted instead in a title at the end of the movie. (It also offers a slightly different version of events.) The focus on intimate exchanges between characters gives the movie both an intimacy and an understated theatricality, both trademarks of Hampton’s screenwriting: famously evident in Dangerous Liaisons but present even when he isn’t adapting his own plays, as in his underrated adaptation of Colette’s Cheri for Stephen Frears. Hampton’s mode is almost always high comedy, ideal for a writer as brilliant at dialogue as he is. Here the aristocracy is a particularly rarefied one: the upper circle of psychoanalysts. Freud even refers to Jung at one point as the “crown prince” of their profession, the obvious implication being that he himself is the seated king. Even the patients belong to this aristocracy: Gross is a gifted therapist, Freud’s original choice as his successor until his predilections prove too extreme, and Sabina winds up as a psychoanalyst after both Freud and Jung applaud the quality of her dissertation.

Gross’s appearance is the catalyst for Jung to start breaking the rules. Gross is a free spirit who believes that all repression is counterproductive as well as counterintuitive, so he acts on his impulses, which are usually sexual. He’s the therapist as wanton child (Cassel is hilarious in the role); eventually he escapes from Burghölzi and charges his hotel bills to Jung. While he’s still Jung’s patient they discuss Sabina’s case and he scolds Jung for denying her the “simple pleasure” of thrashing her within an inch of her life and denying himself the pleasure of sleeping with her. To Otto, all pleasure is simple; Jung points out with something approaching amusement – he’s not a man of much humor – that it rarely is. But Gross has a more powerful effect on Jung than Jung would have imagined: when Sabina, now back at university, invites him into her bed, claiming that her lack of experience is standing in the way of her studies in sexuality (!), he takes her up on her offer. The sight of this cautious, impeccably groomed turn-of-the-century gentleman standing over his corseted lover brandishing a whip while she shrieks in pain and ecstasy is audaciously funny. Jung tries to keep Sabina as a patient while conducting a sexual relationship with her, and as she moves forward in her studies he also treats her as a colleague. (His previous brief professional interaction with Otto Gross, of course, also crossed into the territory of professional collegiality.) When things get messy – when he feels guilty about betraying his wife, who hints that she knows he’s unfaithful – he tries to eliminate the sexual connection, enraging Sabina, who stops seeing him as her analyst; and when they try to be just colleagues, he finds he can’t stay away from her sexually.

Vincent Cassel as Otto Gross
Even funnier are the scenes between Freud and Jung, who begin as proud mentor and gifted disciple – or father and son – and then grow more and more uncomfortable as Jung begins to disappoint the older man and challenge his authority. Mortensen gives a wonderfully subtle comic performance. He wears a complacent look under his mustache and goatee, and he waves his inevitable cigar like a scepter. He smiles benevolently at his young colleague but you can see tiny lines of tension around his mouth whenever Jung strays beyond the lines of his dogma – even early on when Jung tells him about Sabina and Freud offers a confident analysis of this woman he’s never seen based on her psychological type (“finicky, compulsively tidy, stubborn and extremely stingy with money”) and Jung counters with a conflicting view based on his work with her (“I can only tell you she’s rather disorganized, emotionally generous and exceptionally idealistic”). When rumors of their love affair drift back to Freud, Jung, panicked, denies everything. But Sabina, who wants Freud to take her on as his patient – the ultimate revenge on Jung, whose relationship with his mentor has begun to grow strained because his work has begun to take him into what Freud labels unscientific areas – insists that he write to Freud with the truth. At that point, Freud begins to see Sabina as an ally. “Put not your trust in Aryans, Miss Spielrein,” he warns her in his most assured confidential tone. “We’re Jews, my dear Miss Spielrein, and Jews we will always be.” When the two men travel to America together Jung, whose wife is an heiress, scores a point against Freud by getting first-class accommodations that Freud, who is supporting an enormous brood, can’t afford. The last time they see each other, at a conference in Munich, their civil tone barely stretches over the pot shots they take at each other as they re-enact the Oedipal patricide.

Fassbender gives a superbly controlled performance. The hardest-working actor of the last year, he turned out three movies before this one, and the only one in which he’s even better is Jane Eyre. (He also stars in Shame and co-stars in X-Men: First Class.) But Keira Knightley is the wild card here. My first response to her as Sabina was that she isn’t cast right; the part calls for an actress with a more anarchic sensuality, a young Lena Olin or the nineteen-year-old Isabelle Adjani of Truffaut’s The Story of Adèle H. Then I realized that the miscasting hardly matters, since Knightley does such amazing work – physically, vocally, emotionally – that she transcends it. Knightley was terrific in her two Joe Wright pictures, Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, but this daring piece of acting catapults her onto an entirely new level. Next time out she gets to play Anna Karenina (for Wright). I can hardly wait.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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