I was able to see A Dangerous Method last night, and was very taken with it. It's the latest film directed by David Cronenberg, a favorite of mine, and it was written by the Distinguished British Playwright Christopher Hampton, based on his own play The Talking Cure, which was itself suggested by John Kerr's book A Most Dangerous Method. I lay all this out because many of the lukewarm notices coming after the film's screenings in Telluride and Toronto have been implying that the presence of the likes of Hampton in the mix of creative contributors did not Let Cronenberg Be Cronenberg. I see the film rather differently; I think it's pretty brilliant, and almost ENTIRELY Cronenbergian. I, um, tweeted to that effect immediately after seeing the film, thusly, I'm afraid: "A DANGEROUS METHOD (Cronenberg, '11): Fascinating period remake of RABID. Knightley rules in the Chambers role. Don't believe the h8rs." I know, I know; I have to live with that "h8rs" until the day I die.
Anyway, I'm not going to do a full-on review of the film here, as I will likely be doing an official (and paid!) one for MSN Movies, but I'd like to report a bit on some of the reaction to my reaction. One Tweeter took extreme exception to my characterization: "Due respect, but that's nuts, Glenn. Talk about a reach. I say that as a huge fan of his work, too." That was an easy enough one to come back to: "Consider that in both films the heroines' respective maladies are metaphors for sexual power, if you will." A little later, a different objector protested that the film doesn't have "a cinematic bone in its body." Because I'm trying to improve my manners on Twitter, I kept my response to something along the lines of maybe-we-have-different-ideas-of-what-constitutes-"cinematic," to which my parrier responded "is 'visual storytelling' on your list?" and here, really, is where I had to resist the temptation to go all virtually Walter Sobchak on this guy's Smokey, if you know what I'm saying and I think you do...but I restrained myself. And I'm getting mad again just thinking about it. Because, trust me, my challenger was not David Bordwell.
It seems as if every time a film is adapted from a stage play it gives unimaginative and unobservant critics an opportunity to not look at what's actually in front of them and to reflexively condemn the resultant work as being "closed off" or "closed in" or "not cinematic." Alfred Hitchcock put paid to this notion in his discussion with François Truffaut of his (Hitchcock's) 1954 Dial "M" For Murder, or at least I thought so, schmuck as I may be. The thing about Cronenberg is, he's not quite as visually bravura a cinematic storyteller as Hitchcock. Neither a minimalist in the Jarmusch mode nor a maestro of near-operatic flourish in the Scorsesean sense, Cronenberg's pitch comes straight down the middle, in a sense, he rarely does anything to call attention to his technique. What we think of as characteristically Cronenbergian derives from what he shows us—and over the course of five decades of filmmaking he's shown us explosing heads, human VCR slots, talking assholes, venereal-disease quasi-slugs, and so on—not from how he shows it to us, which is distinctive only by way of being largely head-on, without flinching (although we may flinch, ourselves), a very nearly clinical perspective.
In A Dangerous Method the material doesn't give him anything all that terribly upsetting to show us, at least not upsetting in that visceral way that exploding heads and talking assholes might be. But still. That "nearly" clinical perspective; it's not uniformly neutral, not in this film, not in any of Cronenberg's film. More often than not Cronenberg is happy to have us believe that the camera is merely making a record (c.f. Cronenberg's haunting 2000 short Camera), while he very subtly manipulates the perspective. I took particular note in this film of a scene early on in which the pioneering psychoanalyst Carl Jung, played by Michael Fassbender, begins his treatment of the "hysterical" Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). The two sit on plain chairs in a bare room; Jung sits behind Sabina, so that his presence may not become a distraction to her. They discuss her childhood, dreams, all that kind of psychoanalytic stuff (she talks about "some kind of mollusk moving against my back" which brought to my mind a mental picture from Cronenberg's very early feature It Came From Within/Shivers), but that's not what's paramount here. The crucial section of the scene consists of three shots. The first is a very properly—classically, you might say—composed medium shot in which we see Fassbender and Knightley from the waist up. Fassbender's sitting very still, but Knightley's Sabina is knotting up as she speaks; she's a collection of tics, she keeps setting and resetting her jaw and intertwining her arms and leaning forward as she speaks, and her behavior winds the still shot up, gives it a building tension; and Cronenberg holds the shot for a long time. He then cuts to a tighter medium shot isolating Fassbender, who's still unmoving, but is looking rather fervently forward and to the right of the frame (his left) at Knightley's back. We cannot read his expression with anything like certitude, but it's clear he's highly engaged. Cronenberg then cuts back to the prior two-shot, and after holding it long enough to sufficiently re-ground the viewer in it, starts to move the camera, slowly, to the right and forward simultaneously, until Fassbender's out of the shot and Knightley's isolated in it. The camera is, in effect, following Jung's wishes, seeing her the way he wants to see her; if not yet wanting her, utterly fascinated with her.
At this point I could be coy and say "If that isn't visual storytelling, I don't know what is," but screw it, that is visual storytelling, and the critic who can't see it is not a critic I'm inclined to trust. Please note that I said "can't see it," not "isn't impressed/moved by it" or "doesn't admire it." I can't tell another person what to think or how to feel about a film or a sequence in a film. But I can ask a person to look at what's in front of him or her before he or she presumes to assess it.
And of course I figure that Cronenberg doesn't expect the mass of this film's audience to parse his sequences in precisely the way that I'm doing. There's more, of course. Look at Knightley's look, particularly in the earliest parts of the movie. While Fassbender's Jung is a ruddy-cheeked Aryan and Viggo Mortensen's Sigmund Freud mostly a hearty greying eminence, Sabina is a ravishing sepia smudge, a study in dun and talcum white. The shadows beneath her eyes are vampirish, or even, let's say, vampish; the film does begin in 1904, just as the cinematic codification of the feminine is beginning. Then there's the fact that all of the film's sex scenes are in fact scenes within secnes; they're all shot as seen in mirrors in Sabina's room. All this figures in creating, at least as far as I'm concerned, powerful senses of the Other, otherness, and even other-worldly-ness. All of which is brought down with hammerlike world historical force in an admitedly verbal pronouncement made by Mortensen's Freud to Sabina late in the film, as Sabina is herself preparing to become a psychoanalyst, and resolves on a shudderingly tragic note with the film's last line and its text epilogues on the fates of its main characters.
Again, I believe Cronenberg means all this to be intuited rather than parsed by the viewers, but I think I've given you enough here to convince you that maybe this ain't an impersonal Masterpiece Theater move by the master. And again I insist that Rabid is a corresponding touchstone here, as is his galvanizing, self-starring 2007 short (which he made for the Cannes Film Festival's Chacun son cinema commemoration), At The Suicide Of The Last Jew In The World in the Last Cinema in the World. We'll discuss this further when the film opens in November.