Interview: David Cronenberg on 'A Dangerous Method,' psychoanalysis and being an adjective
If auteur theory has brought us to the point where directors’ surnames become definite articles describing their films (oh, if one had a dollar for every unironic reference to “The Haneke” or “The Polanski” overheard at any major film festival), the apex of auteurist achievement must be the conversion of a surname into an all-purpose adjective, used not only to describe that director’s films, but others as well.
Few of these ungainly adjectives are quite as evocative, or eagerly repeated by critics, as “Cronenbergian,” a term generally loaded with promises of physical and psychological penetration, a vague entry point into an oeuvre critic Tim Robey aptly described, referencing Cronenberg's debut feature, as the director’s “own Academy for Erotic Enquiry.”
“It can be a mixed blessing, obviously, and you could put yourself in the position of railing against your own adjectival success,” Cronenberg says with a dry lilt, his voice genially Canadian where one might expect it to sound, well, perhaps a little more Cronenbergian. “The good part is that it suggests you have a real voice in cinema that didn’t exist before, and that is a major achievement. I mean, Fellini films get called Felliniesque, so why complain? But it can also be a trap that encourages audiences to put you in a box, to the point where people might say ‘A Dangerous Method’ is not a ‘Cronenbergian’ film. And at that point, you bristle, because it’s like typecasting.”
He’s right: since the aforementioned “A Dangerous Method” premiered at Venice in September, more than a few critics (this one included -- see my review) have noted that the film seems uncharacteristically demure from a filmmaker regarded in some quarters as mainstream cinema’s reigning king of kink. A precise, academic study of the clash of wills and ideas between psychiatrists Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, both men wrestling for the mind of patient-turned-protégée Sabina Spielrein, it’s intricate adult material that, on one hand, seems to play right into the director’s psychosexual preoccupations. On the other, it’s realized with a measured historical reverence that will disappoint viewers hoping for the warped extremities of “Dead Ringers,” only bound in a corset; it’s as easy to sympathize with them as it is with the director for wishing to play it straight.
“Sure, I’ve done horror films in the past and this is not that,” he offers agreeably. “People tend to associate my work with body parts and the grotesque and strange inventions of bodily creatures. Even if a lot of my past films don’t meet those criteria, I guess that’s what they mean by ‘Cronenbergian.’ And when you apply that to ‘A Dangerous Method,’ you don’t necessarily see all that.”
One senses a ‘but’ coming, and sure enough it does. “Still, when you look at the film thematically, it may still satisfy the adjective. What intrigues me about Freud is that he was interested in the theology of the human body. This was the Victorian era: very repressive, even down to the clothes they wore. And here he was talking about penises and vaginas and anuses and abuse and incest and stuff, things that were not spoken of, which he focused on as the motor of our neuroses. In that respect, that you can easily connect ‘A Dangerous Method’ with my other films, even if visually you’re not seeing the things you might expect from, say, ‘eXistenZ’ or ‘Scanners.’”
Or perhaps we’re not looking hard enough. Certainly, the director’s overriding concern with physicality is present in the performance of Keira Knightley as Spielrein, the young woman who entered Jung’s care in a state of crippling hysteria, before regaining control of her faculties and emerging as one of history’s first female psychoanalysts. Knightley doesn’t shy away from the overtly unhinged nature of the role at the outset, entering the film with arms flailing and jaw prominently contorting itself; it’s been a divisive turn, but Cronenberg insists they were merely honoring the reality of Spielrein’s condition.
“There’s a lot of historical recording of what Sabina was in terms of her hysteria,” he explains. “There’s silent footage of people with her condition, and it’s quite unwatchable – these women were destroying themselves. I felt strongly that we should concentrate on the mouth, because here was a woman who being asked, forced even, to say things she felt were unspeakable. So she would be forcing these things out of her mouth, but part of her body would be resisting that force. I know some people find what Keira’s doing pretty out there, but we thought we were being restrained compared with what we had seen.”
Watching Knightley’s daring turn, it’s hard to imagine the film as a mid-1990s vehicle for Julia Roberts titled “Sabina,” but that is in fact how Christopher Hampton’s script was first conceived – until the project fell through and Hampton decided to take it to the stage instead. Cronenberg tells me about the project’s circuitous route from screen to stage and back again with some glee – which is understandable, considering that the film has been criticized by some for its perceived staginess.
Warming to his topic, he continues: “It’s such a cliché, but to me it comes down to what you think of as cinema. As a director, I’m most interested in photographing the human face talking. So I don’t think of lots of words as being automatically theatrical at all. I think of it as being essentially cinematic. A car chase is a car chase, and it’s not that interesting after a while. But an incredible face saying incredible words is, to me, the essence of cinema.” He pauses, pleased with his point. “So yes, it gives the lie to the idea that the subject matter is particularly rooted in theater. We had the play to the work with, but also the original screenplay, plus other research and materials that we worked into a new screenplay. So it wasn’t as if we just transferred it straight from the stage.”
Historical authenticity is something Cronenberg keeps returning to in describing his approach, something he doesn’t seem to believe the critics calling for a more subversively florid take on the material are taking into account. “For me, this project is about resurrection, bringing these people back to life as accurately as we can. I had no pro-Freud or pro-Jung agenda, I just wanted to make them alive, to see and hear them speak. And when I’m doing that, I’m absolutely not thinking about any of my other movies.”
He does, however, admit that he personally sides with Freud off-screen: “Freud lines up more with my existing view of human reality. Jung became more of a religious leader, frankly, and that involved something of a flight from the body: he wanted to talk about spirit, God, archetypes, self-realization – which isn’t really what I’m about. But they were both brilliant, charismatic men.”
Cronenberg’s interest in Freud is a longstanding one. He admits that he’d long wanted to make a film about the birth of psychoanalysis – an ambition that even his very first feature, “Stereo,” clearly supports to some extent – and seized upon Hampton’s play as a means of doing so with a structure already in place. “Anybody growing up in the last century was influenced by Freudian thought and analysis, whether they wanted to be or not,” he says, explaining his fascination. “I grew up seeing everyone from Salvador Dali to Bernardo Bertolucci apply psychoanalytic thought to their art. I’ve never been in that group, but there is a clear relationship between the disciplines.”
Does he see the comparatively straightforward “A Dangerous Method” is his own most psychoanalytic film, then? He avoids comparisons with previous films – “A director is in no position to analyse his own work,” he states emphatically – but it’s clear the film has been an exhaustive thematic exploration for him, Cronenbergian or otherwise.
“I do think an artist and a psychoanalyst do the same thing, in a way,” he ventures cautiously. “They’re presented with an official version of reality, and then they say, ‘Okay, but what’s underneath that? What are the hidden factors driving it?’ We’re both fascinated by the human condition in general – we want to know what’s really going on.” He pauses, a smile audible over the phone. “I do, at least.”