Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Film Review: A Dangerous Method (2011)

Keira had an allergic reaction to an ill-fitting costume
The credits say that David Cronenberg directed A Dangerous Method, but I'm pretty sure at some early stage in the production he was kidnapped by the set decorator and the head of the costume department. They allowed him to jot down brief notes on directing the actors, which they handled in his stead in a perfunctory manner, but mostly they just took the opportunity to run amok in their respective fields. Imagine David's horror when he was released from his spider hole and saw that his idea for a steamy, kinky, dramatic look at the birth of modern psychology had been turned into the cinematic equivalent of a Sacher torte: sweet, terribly attractive and full of empty calories.

I know period pieces like to wallow in historical detail, but this film takes it to the next level. Every interior is stuffed with period bric-a-bric, all of it in pristine condition and looking like everything had just been walked over from an episode of the Antiques Roadshow. The period cars and carriages are just off the showroom floor, their brass fittings gleaming like the sun. And the costumes, my dear, the costumes! The most imaginative designs! The finest materials! Perfect fits for all! Not a stain or a wrinkle or a loose thread anywhere! Even the exteriors in Zurich and Vienna are buffed up, their streets only occupied by immaculately dressed burghers and burgheresses, all of them moving slowly in the background so that their finery can be appreciated. These streets aren't sullied by horse manure, urchins, beggars, dogs, street vendors or smoky chimneys. You could eat a Sacher torte off those cobblestone streets.

Starring Jeff Goldblum as the Sacher torte

The ridiculously glossy, Vogue magazine look of A Dangerous Method stuck out for me because the story just couldn't get any traction. The problem is that trying to cram in multiple storylines about the birth of psychology, the conflict between Freud and Jung, and an affair between Jung and one his patients is simply way too much. None of the separate stories are handled well, and there's the additional problem that a film about a long-running intellectual debate is just going to be way too talky. Not to mention that trying to do a film precis of a subject as complex as the birth of psychology is just asking for trouble. I think this is what explains the Better Period Homes & Costumes approach Cronenberg took. He realized that if he was going to make audiences sit through scenes of people having calm discussions about the Ego and the Id, he'd better provide some ravishing eye candy to relieve the tedium. Unfortunately, the film's look becomes what the film's about.

The acting is very good, although Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortenson aren't required to do much more than look serious, thoughtful and concerned. Keira Knightley has to do the heavy lifting in this film, and she's very good, but her role as a woman gripped by hysteria and a sexual obsession is very shouty and showy. The woman she's playing was undoubtedly like this, but she's such a contrast to the placid performances of Fassbender and Mortenson that her scenery-chewing becomes somewhat distracting. Cronenberg may have intended to place her hysterical character in stark contrast to the academic calmness of Jung and Freud, but it ends up making us concentrate on her acting rather than her character.

A Dangerous Method isn't outrageously bad, just dry, dull, cloyingly pretty, and unimaginative. It's like an episode of Downton Abbey with an added dollop of nudity and kinky sex.

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