It’s always tempting to imagine you can psychoanalyze a filmmaker on the basis of their movies, especially so when it comes to David Cronenberg. What should we make of a director who has seared on to our collective unconscious images of exploding heads, rapist slugs coming up through the plughole, video cassettes being inserted into vaginal stomach openings, avant-garde gynecological instruments? The fact that his new movie deals with Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and the infancy of the psychoanalytic movement only adds to the urge.
Cronenberg is sitting opposite me, on a comfortable couch, but there’s little prospect of getting him to lie down on it. If anything, it’s he who puts me on the couch. I tell the 67-year-old director that Scanners (its aforementioned exploding head in particular) was a formative experience for me, illicitly viewed and reviewed in slow motion on VHS, a good six years before I was legally allowed to. “Oh my God, I hope it didn’t do you too much damage,” he laughs. In the 1970s, Cronenberg was your typical science geek: greasy black hair, bottle-top glasses. These days, he looks pretty cool: like Ted Danson’s smarter brother.
Legions of horror fans have expressed dismay, even anger, at Cronenberg’s apparent desertion of the special effects-heavy stomach-churners with which he made his name. Cronenberg, they argue, has sold out, moving into the mainstream with films such as A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. “Yeah, yeah, you shrug that off,” Cronenberg says, “because they have no right to be angry. It’s the downside of having fans. Freud would have called it repetition compulsion: they just want you to keep doing the same thing. They want to be 10 years old again and see Scanners when they weren’t supposed to. But that’s their project. My project is to explore things and keep myself interested and excited by film. Two different things.”
On the surface, A Dangerous Method, could be his most conventional to date: there’s an A-list cast, historical characters and a period setting. Adapted from Christopher Hampton’s play, it is based on the apparently true story of the short-lived alliance between the young Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his mentor, Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and the pivotal role played by Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), first a patient of Jung’s, then his lover, then his student. But A Dangerous Method mischievously subverts its period trappings. Bestial impulses squirm beneath the decorous facades of 19th-century Vienna, and occasionally flare up spectacularly. In the absence of any gore, the spectacle of Knightley first raving hysterically, then being spanked by Jung in masochistic delight provide the film’s abiding images. “Of course, Keira was a little worried about the spanking scenes, but that’s normal,” Cronenberg says. “Often the actors’ fear is that they can’t give you what you want. But she’s very down-to-earth and we could have a straightforward discussion about it. I said, ‘Don’t hold back.’” Some critics have judged her jaw-jutting portrayal over-the-top, but Spielrein’s case was well-documented, Cronenberg says, and Knightley’s version of it is “absolutely accurate.”
More than just an exceptionally articulate love triangle, A Dangerous Method lays out a landscape of repression and release, strained civilities and deep neuroses, before stopping on the brink of World War I — as if to suggest these issues would shape Europe for the rest of the century. “Freud has never been more relevant,” Cronenberg says. “Because of his understanding of what human beings are, and his insistence on the reality of the human body. We do not escape from that. Jung went into a kind of Aryan mysticism, whereas Freud was insisting on humans as we really are, not as we might want to be. That’s often hard to take, but it keeps coming back to us: the possibility of descending into tribal barbarism was very shocking to Europeans of the era. To suddenly be engulfed in flames and barbarity was the shattering of their ideals. And we’ve had Kosovo and the Balkans to remind us it can happen again.”