While Videodrome (1983) remains my favourite Cronenberg movie and on the whole I prefer his earlier to his later work, he is a director who continues to amuse me. When I went to see Cronenberg’s latest flick A Dangerous Method (at the Soho Curzon) I was apparently surrounded by a bunch of badly dressed shrinks and therapists who found the film ‘intense’ and lapped it up in the same way they’d ‘appreciate’ any other worthless costume drama designed to appeal to the type of middle-class and middle-brow film-goer who thinks a TV show like Strictly Come Dancing is raunchy. In stark contrast to the bits and pieces of conversation I overheard on my way out of the cinema, I knew I’d just sat through a slab of exploitation schlock rooted in horror and art house tropes, which simultaneously provided a bellyful of laughs at the expense of the founding fathers of psychoanalytic pseudo-science. It seemed the so-called ‘mental health professionals’ sitting around me were just too self-absorbed and/or ignorant to notice their idols were being mocked.
The movie begins with a woman being restrained in a coach pulled by black horses – creating a mood more akin to a campy Hammer period horror than a faux-historical snorefest concocted by the likes of Merchant Ivory. The woman is Sabrina Spielrein (played by Keira Knightley), a hysteric who undergoes a ‘talking cure’ and emerges from this to play a leading role in the cult of psychoanalysis. The character and the way her hysterical outbursts are framed are obviously modelled on Isabelle Adjani’s performance in Andrzej Zulawski’s horror/thriller/drama crossover Possession (1981). That said Knightly isn’t nearly as good an actress as Adjani – but that doesn’t matter too much as Cronenberg plays A Dangerous Method mostly for quiet laughs (so the fact that Knightly’s cod-Russian accent wanders across the Atlantic and back is of little consequence).
Speilrein’s doctor is the idiotic Carl Gustav Jung and the fact he is played by Michael Fassbender (who many cinema goers will have seen recently in Steve McQueen’s celluloid train wrecks Hunger and Shame) means that even if he weren’t such a pathetic figure it would still be impossible to take him seriously. Speilrein and Jung talk complete bollocks to each other until they get so bored with their moronic chats that they embark on a sado-masochistic affair (which is laugh-out-loud funny precisely because Fassbender as Jung brandishing a leather belt makes for a hilariously unconvincing top).
Meanwhile Sigmund Freud (played by Viggo Mortensen) has entered the frame and quickly proves himself to be as much of a charlatan as Jung (hardly surprising since Jung models his ‘medical work’ on Freud’s quack theories). Freud in A Dangerous Method reminded me of Roy Scheider playing another quack – Dr. Benway – in Cronenberg’s earlier film adaptation of the William Burrough’s book The Naked Lunch (1991). As a result of this, at any moment I was expecting Freud to announce: “I deplore brutality. It’s not efficient. On the other hand, prolonged mistreatment, short of physical violence, gives rise, when skilfully applied, to anxiety and a feeling of special guilt.” (Words Burroughs credits to Benway). In Cronenberg’s new movie, Freud (like Benway) lacks a conscience and enjoys seeing others dependent upon him.
Ultimately the ‘true story’ on which A Dangerous Method is based doesn’t amount to much. What makes the film work is Cronenberg’s endless use of pastiche and cinematic reference. For example, Jung and Freud conversing while strolling through a formal garden that brings to mind scenes from the Alain Resnais/Alain Robbe-Grillet collaboration Last Year In Marienbad (1961).
As an attack on the quackery of psychoanalysis A Dangerous Method may be more restrained that Lucio Fulci’s superior A Cat In The Brain (1990), but nonetheless both movies successfully portray shrinks as being totally unsuited to care for the mentally disturbed. The invocation of Last Year At Marienbad really underlines this – despite there being no consensus about the central subject matter of the film. One of the more convincing interpretations of Marienbad is that it is concerned with a rape. Spielrein too can be read as being raped by Jung (both mentally and physically), and after being abused goes on to become an abuser (psychoanalyst) herself.
So don’t believe the hype – Cronenberg hasn’t degenerated into the type of effete middle-brow tosser worshipped by bourgeois cineastes. He’s still way better than that! Long live the New Flesh!
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!
Comment by Barry Graham on 2012-02-23 17:45:42 +0000
Videodrome is my favorite too, but Cronenberg has never made anything that wasn’t worth a look. There’s a great book of interviews with him, Cronenberg on Cronenberg.
Comment by mistertrippy on 2012-02-23 17:53:37 +0000
For sure. I think Spider is probably his worst film… but I’m still up for watching anything he does, and in nearly all of it I find something to like. I have that Cronenberg On Cronenberg book somewhere – haven’t looked at it in a very long time!
Comment by B. Wood on 2012-02-23 18:22:01 +0000
I think I once mentioned my mental state to you in a pub somewhere in another time
Comment by Barry Graham on 2012-02-23 19:30:02 +0000
Yeah, I think Spider is his weakest, though Crash is down there too – but I still like both of them.
His most unsettling line ever, I think, is in Videodrome: “It has something you don’t have… a philosophy.”
Comment by raymond anderson on 2012-02-23 20:46:37 +0000
Comment by Stu Murphy on 2012-02-23 22:54:58 +0000
Gonna go see that me thinks. Didn’t know Cronenberg did a Naked Lunch film. Gonna check that too!
Comment by Christopher Nosnibor on 2012-02-23 23:33:02 +0000
I always thought that Cronenberg’s take on ‘naked Lunch’ sold the book short, and while credit’s due for for actually attempting to film an infilmable book, sidestepping the book to produce a film about the writing of the book still strikes me as a tad disingenuous, and some of the prosthetics and effects just don’t really cut it.
I have to admit having something of a soft spot for ‘Crash’, although it’s been a very long time since I watched it.
Whatever, and even if his latest effort is by no means one of the greats, the film world needs Cronenberg now as much as ever.
Comment by mistertrippy on 2012-02-24 00:48:10 +0000
Strangely I was in the pub tonight talking to Dan Fraser who works at Quercus Books about Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch. He was championing it and saying it gets knocked unfairly: and he contrasted it favourably to the film of Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas (which he sees as removing that book’s politics and being equally reactionary in suggesting that taking drugs is the same thing as thinking for yourself)…. That said Naked Lunch is not one of my favourite Crononberg movies but it is still the one that comes to mind when you’re watching A Dangerous Method. I too liked Crash better than Naked Lunch, but like you haven’t seen it for a long time. And I agree with you about the film world needing Cronenberg – there aren’t many directors of his age and experience still making watchable movies!
And talking of adaptations of Naked Lunch that are true to the book – are you familiar with the unauthorised but totally faithfully Burroughs movie by my friend Simon Strong? You can see his Naked Lunch trailer here (I have the full length film on DVD and it’s a groove sensation): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JFMpypiIhFA
Comment by Steve Hyde on 2012-02-24 01:55:37 +0000
The Benway-Freud connection really struck a chord… so obvious once you mention it, yet you’re the first person who did (to my knowledge)… I’m also a big Cronenberg fan.
I once studied at London’s “Institute of Psychiatry”. Real shrinks are exotic, fabulous creatures… as bizarre as anything in literature…
Comment by Kira O’Reilly on 2012-02-24 02:14:36 +0000
Phew. I can go and see it now, the trailer had me seriously worried.
Comment by Byron Oblivious on 2012-02-24 08:22:18 +0000
well done for sticking it out [albeit discretely] …as it sounds like the assembled baggage of popcorn scoffing pscho-babble crones surrounding you were certainly a lot scarier than all of Cronenberg’s flicks put together …2 pints of lager ‘n quick-lime and a packet of qualloids please.
Comment by mistertrippy on 2012-02-24 09:10:46 +0000
The audience were certainly a freak show but I kept repeating to myself” “it’s worth putting up with these clowns to see all of Cronenberg’s new movie…”
@ Kira O’Reilly. I nearly didn’t go and see it after seeing the trailer… but to get the money to make films Cronenbrerg no doubt has to make it look like he’s doing one thing while actually doing something else, so the trailer is bound to be cut to make it look like shit! But it really is worth seeing!
Comment by Simon Evans on 2012-02-24 09:27:50 +0000
there are a couple of psychoanalytic centres near here, its denizens instantly identifiable by their strangely coloured apparel.
Comment by Kellie Gillespie-Wright on 2012-02-24 14:25:31 +0000
I love Cronenberg and agree with you on Videodrome (and Shivers, which I just watched again on Monday) but I couldn’t sit through a film with keira knightley in, even with Cronenberg at the helm, chemical incentives or the promise of irony and injokes – I’ll skip this…
Comment by mistertrippy on 2012-02-24 14:54:42 +0000
That’s a shame – it’s better than you think. And if you watched Possession first it would make it even easier to laugh along at Keira Knightley…..
Comment by Benedict Seymour on 2012-02-24 15:39:19 +0000
Yes! it’s definitely played for laughs. And there are references back to Naked Lunch apart from Freud/Benway – ‘there are no accidents’ sez Jung (synchronicity). check out the dialogue between Tom Frost and Burroughs in NL:
Tom Frost: They say you murdered your wife. Is that true?
Bill Lee: Who told you that?
Tom Frost: Word gets around.
Bill Lee: It wasn’t murder. It was an accident.
Tom Frost: There are no accidents. For example, I’ve been killing my own wife slowly over a period of years.
Bill Lee: What?
Tom Frost: Well, not intentionally. I mean, on the level of conscious intention, it’s insane, monstrous.
Bill Lee: But you do consciously know it. You just said it. We’re discussing it.
Tom Frost: Not consciously. This is all happening telepathically, non-consciously.
Bill Lee: What do you mean?
Tom Frost: If you look carefully at my lips, you’ll realize that I’m actually saying something else. I’m not actually telling you about the several ways I’m gradually murdering Joan.
And I agree about Possession though as you say Knightley’s convulsions are a weak pastiche of Adjani’s.
Comment by James Heartfield on 2012-02-24 19:40:48 +0000
The trouble with Keira Knightley is that she is very Jung and easily Freudened. Nobody likes a pretty woman. I thought it was pretty good, myself – any chance to get Michael Fassbender to smack Keira’s skinny arse. The Freud character was a freakish caricature of the great man, but forgiveable for the excellent telling of Sabine Spielrein’s adventures, and the intrinsic creepiness of Jung. Existenz was surely the best Cronenberg.
Comment by mistertrippy on 2012-02-24 20:32:27 +0000
Existenz was the second best Chronenberg after Videodrome, then for me it is probably Rabid and Shivers…. And I thought Cronenberg got Freud just right as a freak and Jung as a complete creep (yes even more of a scumbag than Freud!). And as I said above Fassbender smacking Knightley’s arse was laugh out loud funny!
Comment by Simon Strong on 2012-02-24 23:39:49 +0000
Cronenberg has made a nice living from asset stripping the postmodern canon… unlike. And Stewart, you’re only pretending to like him so he’ll buy rights to one of your books.
Comment by mistertrippy on 2012-02-25 00:23:02 +0000
So who would you rather bought film rights to my books – Cronenberg or Guy Ritchie? You know Cronenberg would make the better film!
Comment by Marga Tormo Moll on 2012-02-25 01:09:30 +0000
I have a problem choosing between Existenz and Videodrome cos I love them both! And I cannot comment on A Dangerous Method cos I haven’t seeing it yet… But I do have such a crush for Viggo Mortensen (yeah whatever) that although they were so different I even liked Cronenberg’s A History of Violence and Eastern Promises!
Comment by Simon Strong on 2012-02-25 06:45:38 +0000
Take his fucking money dude! Right on! Take Ritchie’s money too. Take the fuckin lot!
Comment by mistertrippy on 2012-02-25 14:18:55 +0000
Yeah it’s only money… it don’t mean anything… they can have a speed metal soundtrack – what do I care?
Comment by Steve on 2012-02-25 14:59:44 +0000
If Guy Ritchie ever films one of your books, I insist it is “Cunt”.
Personally I would like to see David Fincher film “Suspect Device”.
Comment by Steve Hyde on 2012-02-25 15:08:44 +0000
Really enjoyed “History of Violence”, because I hadnt even noticed when I saw it that Cronenberg had directed it… so there I was watching some tawdry pulp when suddenly it goes seriously awry… most amusing…
Comment by Christopher Nosnibor on 2012-02-26 09:46:09 +0000
Returning rather belatedly, I didn’t know about Simon Strong’s version… but I suspect I should probably check it out…
Comment by mistertrippy on 2012-02-26 18:28:47 +0000
The trailer will tell you everything you need to know and won’t take long to watch… then if you want the delights of the full length version you can pursue it! It’s a nice concept!
Comment by Simon Strong on 2012-03-06 05:47:38 +0000
When Stewart says “everything you need to know”, he means about Everything, not just Cronenberg and Burroughs. The full-length movie (62 mins) is hard to track down… I’m taking steps to try and rectify that… BWAHAHAHAHAHA!
Comment by mistertrippy on 2012-03-06 19:37:18 +0000
But I have a copy and I think it would look great on Ubu!
Comment by Michael Roth on 2012-06-24 20:53:28 +0000
my top Cronenberg movies would probably be: