Saturday, April 13, 2024

Nothing Dangerous About This “Method”

Were it directed by a first-time filmmaker or a director of little renown, perhaps“A Dangerous Method”could be viewed as a passable, even a respectable effort. But because it was made by none other than David Cronenberg, Canada’senfant terrible of perversion, provocation and social commentary, it has to rank alongside “Melancholia” as one of 2011’s gargantuan disappointments.

Its belated arrival on South Florida cinema screens (it opens today in a handful of theaters, including Regal Shadowood and Cinemark Palace in Boca Raton) has been accompanied by months’ worth of anticipation. The film was a major coup for the New York Film Festival in September, and it even made a cover ofFilm Comment. Watching the surprisingly timid and unthrilling final product, it’s a wonder why it received any attention at all. Cronenberg adapted the movie from Christopher Hampton’s 2002 play “The Talking Cure,” about the complicated sexual relationship and perennial power struggle between Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and the latter’s patient-turned-paramour, Sabina Spielrein, a future psychiatrist in her own right. Watching “A Dangerous Method” on the screen, there’s no question of its theatrical origins; it couldn’t be stagier if it were filmed on a proscenium. It’s as dense and talky as a psychotherapy symposium, and only five characters have major speaking parts. There are handsome scene changes that lend themselves to widescreen panoramas – the film was shot beautifully in Zurich, mostly – but the meat of Hampton’s screenplay is lazy Xeroxing of his original theater piece (except for the length, that is; the film runs 99 minutes but feels like the two-and-a-half-hour stage draft).

The story opens in 1904 and continues through 1913, charting Speilrein’s (the customarily elegant Keira Knightley, dirtying herself up in Oscar anticipation) transition from stuttering, jittery, fearful, Neanderthalic psych patient to the woman who would entice the unhappily married Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) into bed, thus resulting in a series of grievous ethical violations. Viggo Mortensen gives the film’s strongest performance as Freud, the king and kingmaker in psychotherapy at the time, forever fondling cigars, interpreting dreams and lording over his lessers. Most of the scenes involve two of the three central characters waxing on and on about sex, mysticism and the future of their field in gassy, long-winded scenes of inexorable pontification.

The blame for the film’s dramatic impotence and narrative bloodlessness rests more with Cronenberg than Hampton, because he fails to inject any of his personality onto the screen. Assessing only the director’s post-millenial material, there is nothing here even remotely approaching the carnal sexual rendezvous of “A History of Violence” or the nude sauna bloodbath in “Eastern Promises.” Here we get a tastefully censored spanking scene and a sliced cheek, as polite and uncontroversial as anything you might see on basic cable. It may be the first Cronenberg film I’ve seen that is utterly devoid of originality, distinction and the primal need to take us places we’ve never been.

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