‘Dangerous Method’: David Cronenberg on Freud, Jung and hysteria


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David Cronenberg, director of blood-soaked dramas like “A History of Violence” and cult genre pictures like “The Fly,” detours into the life of the mind with his new film, “A Dangerous Method,” opening Wednesday. Adapted from Christopher Hampton’s play “The Talking Cure” and John Kerr’s “A Most Dangerous Method,” the film depicts the early years of psychoanalysis on the eve of World War I, as Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and his protégé Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) clash over the treatment of Sabina Spielrein, a beautiful young patient (Keira Knightley). The director recently sat down for an interview with 24 Frames’ Rebecca Keegan to discuss his attraction to the subject matter, his theories about analysis and how he set about casting historic figures.

R.K.: Why Freud?


D.C.: Some people have said, “This is a departure for you.” My first film is a seven-minute film called “Transfer” and it was about a psychiatrist and his patient. The relationship between a psychoanalyst and a patient had not existed before Freud. It’s uniquely intimate, very clinical and yet emotional. It’s interesting that we can invent a new kind of human relationship that needs to be explored artistically as well as clinically.

R.K.: Have you undergone analysis yourself?

D.C.: No. I think psychoanalysis does on a personal level what an artist does in general. You’re presented with an official version of reality …. And then you say, “OK, but what’s really going on underneath the surface? That’s not the total story.” There are hidden things, things that are misunderstood. What drives people? Why do people do what they do? When they go off the rails, it’s very intriguing. When something goes wrong it’s usually much more revealing than when things are going perfectly right. You don’t want to see a movie about people living this great life where everything’s nice. That’s boring. You might want to live that, but you don’t want to see it as a drama. In that sense, it’s kind of a perfect subject for an artist.

R.K.: How did you and Keira Knightley discuss how to portray her character in her hysterical state?

D.C.: Christopher [Hampton] found in the basement of the Burghölzli Clinic Jung’s notes on the admission of Sabina. It’s 50 pages of notes written by Jung and her symptoms are all very clearly detailed. You could also look at silent film footage from the turn of the century of hysterical patients. It is unbearable to watch, these people are mutilating themselves and distorting themselves out of the desperation of their mental state. Keira said, “Should I use mostly my body so if it feels like it’s too much you can concentrate on my face?” I said “No, because you’re speaking the unspeakable. This woman is actually talking about masturbating and sexual excitement when she’s beaten by her father.” It’s not acceptable, not only to feel that but to actually accept it. She’s been encouraged by Jung to talk about it .… This is the talking cure of Freud that is really so revolutionary. No one had ever thought of listening to these crazy people in order to find out what was going on. You would give them baths, sedatives, shock treatment … but you wouldn’t listen to them.

R.K: Viggo Mortensen is not an obvious Freud. Why did you cast him?


D.C.: I was reading a book by Stefan Zweig, an Austrian writer who knew Freud. He described Freud as masculine, handsome, charismatic, witty, charming. People don’t think of him that way. We know him as an 80-year-old, cancer-ridden grandfather. But this was Freud when he was 50 and very dynamic, forging a movement. When you think of Freud that way, Viggo seems a lot more obvious.

R.K.: Michael Fassbender is getting a lot of attention right now, for this film and for “Shame,” in which he plays a sex addict. What’s he like? D.C.: He’s a wild Irish boy. Funny, sweet, playful. He’s what you used to call “a real card.” He understands the darkness and he must have all of that in him, but he basically likes to have fun .… I haven’t seen “Shame” yet. I jokingly said to Michael, “Your performance in ‘Dangerous Method’ is really better because what you play in ‘Shame’ is you — a guy who gets drunk and chases women.”

R.K.: Your next film is “Cosmopolis,” which is adapted from a Don DeLillo novel. What can you tell me about it?

D.C.: It’s the story of a young billionaire played by Rob Pattinson who travels across Manhattan to get a haircut. That’s the plot. Robert’s a very underestimated actor. I think he’ll blow some people away.


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-- Rebecca Keegan