tongue-tied lightning

The Best Films of 2011: #6 A Dangerous Method

Jim Emerson did a piece towards the end of last year where he charted the precise moments he fell in love with certain 2011 films. For me and A Dangerous Method that moment was the very second shot. Keira Knightley writhing and screaming, thrusting herself into the corner of the carriage we had just seen racing down the road, in a misguided attempt to break loose of her confinement. Howard Shore’s score feels a little too arch, slightly perverse. As befits a film involving Sigmund Freud, that strain of perversity runs throughout the film. A sense of irreverence for the film’s period trappings. Shots framed slightly askew, attention drawn to Viggo Mortensen’s prosthetic nose, the knowing way in which he’s constantly chomping on his cigar, a precisely timed nip-slip denoting a character’s state of mental imbalance.

It all mirrors the event portrayed in the film, the entrance of Sabina Spielrein into the lives of Jung and Freud and the subsequent introduction of female sexuality into academic discourse. Spielrein is embodied by Keira Knightley in a stunning performance. Her earliest scenes are overwhelmed by bodily contortions, as she physically confines what she perceives as her own perversity. Drawing on great reserves of will to keep it from being dealt with in healthy and natural ways. The performance is over-the-top to the point of discomfort and at the risk of generalization I think in many cases it’s that very feeling of discomfort that has led people to paint this as a bad performance. Cronenberg clearly knows how to handle actors and it’s an insult to assume this isn’t exactly what he wanted on the screen. It’s a clear attempt to create the same feelings in the audience that Spielrein was creating in her peers.

Spielrein is so much the focus of the proceedings that when it steps away and turns to the relationship between Freud and Jung it occasionally loses a bit of it’s momentum. I’ve heard the opposite argued but I find that very difficult to fathom. Also, running at a spare 99 minutes there is a feeling that maybe Cronenberg is attempting to do too much with too little. One wonders what an HBO Miniseries take on A Dangerous Method would’ve been like. But the pleasures here are primarily formal, the way Cronenberg forgoes typical framing, lenses and editing patterns and what he’s trying to communicate by that, it’s a masterclass in mise-en-scene. At the risk of making another generalization and alienating more of you I will say I can only assume those who deride A Dangerous Method as boring are ignoring what’s on the screen and casting their narrow focus towards the page.


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