Canadian director David Cronenberg’s latest, ‘A Dangerous Method,’ takes us into a world most of us haven’t frequented since college — sexual psychology, Sigmund Freud, the id and the superego. Never one to shy away from the hard stuff, Cronenberg introduces us to fledgling shrink Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) as he attempts to help the labelled psychopath Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), who is dealing with repressed sexual abuse at the hands of her father. Along the way, we get several delicious appearances by Viggo Mortensen as Freud himself, who muddies the waters with his interjections into the Jung-Spielrein relationship.
Based on a true story, ‘Method’ follows Jung from the beginning of his career to his eventual descent into madness. All cerebral and sometimes kinky, ‘A Dangerous Method’ strives to be totally accurate, right down to Spielrein’s tics. Moviefone spoke with Cronenberg about his Viggo love, his Keira love and, yes, his Robert Pattinson love.
What a pleasure it is to talk to you. I grew up watching ‘The Fly.’
[Laughs] Oh, good! I hope it hasn’t warped you totally.
Not totally. But speaking of mental health – Freud. Jung. Sex. Psychology. Are these areas of interest for you, a partial impetus for making ‘A Dangerous Method’?
How could they not be areas of interest for everyone? Obviously, this is the first movie I’ve made that’s specifically about Freud and Jung, but the first film I ever made was a short called ‘Transfer,’ which was about a psychologist and his patient. Obviously that unique relationship that Freud invented, between a psychotherapist and his patient, is of interest to me. We accept that as a very standard interaction between two people, but it’s really rather a strange one if you think about it.
On some level, were you trying to convey the ravages of secrecy and repression, and working those out through psychotherapy?
The first thought in all of our minds was accuracy. The movie was very, very accurate. We have 50 pages of documentation by Jung himself about what Sabina Spielrein’s symptoms were when she came to the Burgholzli, and he describes her facial tics in great detail. He calls them deformations. We wanted to be neutral as well, since these characters were so interesting and charismatic. If you want to analyze it, of course, you can say here’s a woman who’s being asked for the first time to talk about her problems — because it’s the “talking cure.” Up to that point, no one ever listened to crazy people, but here’s Freud positing, “You really should listen to crazy people because what they say is the key to how you can help them.” The scene we shot with Sabina [Keira Knightley] and Jung [Michael Fassbender] was basically the first time the talking cure had ever been used on a patient.
That scene is particularly powerful, and interestingly shot.
Again, we wanted it to be as accurate as possible. This is a woman who comes from a wealthy family, who is being asked to express these things that, for her, have always been unspeakable, just hideous, horrible things that she’s been tormented by. She’s trying to get the words out, but she’s also trying to get them back in at the same time.
Some critics have been rather — well, critical — of Knightley’s depiction of Spielrein, saying her performance is over-the-top and exaggerated. Any thoughts about that?
We felt her portrayal was accurate. There are actually photographs from the turn of the century, which a French psychiatrist took of his patients, and there is some shot footage too, which we worked off of. People are ignorant about this, and they have a response which has more to do with what their idea of acting is, rather than the accuracy of the movie.
I think a lot of people are uncomfortable with the tics, too.
Oh yes, that is absolutely true. When you see those patients, you’re made to be uncomfortable, because in a way it’s like watching somebody mutilate themselves, deform themselves.
Another wonderful element of this movie is the emphasis on conversation and analysis. Do you feel, in contemporary times, this approach has been commercialized and, in a way, made redundant?
When you think about it, it always had to be commercialized. Jung was fortunate in that he had a wealthy wife and he didn’t have to make money from psychotherapy, but Freud did. He was in an interesting position because he essentially had to monetize psychotherapy. People knew about paying to go see a regular doctor, but people didn’t understand why you would have to pay a doctor to sit behind you and listen to you. Unfortunately, that’s always been a question about psychoanalysis, right from the very beginning. It’s interesting, I just read an article in The New York Times about how it’s now becoming quite popular in China. Freud is really hot in China! [Laughs]
That Michael Fassbender sure is the master of period pieces. From Spartan times to the swingin’ ’60s, Fassbender proves he can tackle any era.
Critics are also saying this is a bit demure for a Cronenberg film.
That has nothing to do with me, it has to do with them. As I’ve often said, when I make a movie, it’s like I’ve never made another movie before. I give the movie what it needs, what it wants. This is very familiar to me. When I made ‘The Dead Zone,’ that was very demure for me, considering what I’d done before. The stuff I would do in ‘Shivers,’ for example, is nothing like what I would do for ‘Dead Zone.’ You don’t impose things on your other movies just because people like those movies or expect whatever element in them. I have to ignore that, you know?
I’ve always been of that school, too. Each movie is its own island.
It’s true. Creatively, that is exactly the truth. Those other considerations — genre, themes — those are critical and marketing questions, not creative questions.
Viggo Mortensen was recently on the record saying that you don’t receive enough recognition from the Academy. Is this something that concerns you at all?
No. It really doesn’t. Viggo and I talked about this. We said that we’ve both had enough attention to last a lifetime. Of course, if you do a movie, you want people to like it, you want them to see it, you want them to be interested in it. You want your movie to get attention, but in terms of awards, you put them on a shelf somewhere and that’s it! Even with an Oscar, it’s the same thing.
And it’s not like your movies are completely ignored at the Oscars…
Yeah, and the review we got from AO Scott at the New York Times for this movie … you can’t get a better review than that.
Would you ever agree to calling Viggo one of your muses?
No, though it is a sweet thought. I like Viggo. In fact, I love Viggo and we get along great. But I just shot ‘Cosmopolis’ and Viggo’s not in it! [Laughs] I would hate to think I abandoned my muse to make that movie. No, but seriously, we love to collaborate and we love to be colleagues making a movie, there’s no question about that. But you do an actor a great disservice by miscasting.
Your casting of Robert Pattinson in ‘Cosmopolis,’ someone whose acting might not be as critically lauded as Mortensen’s, was obviously a well-thought-out decision, then.
Well, Keira’s acting doesn’t always get praise from high-brow critics, either. I would use that parallel. You have a young actor who’s found success with a franchise just like Keira did with ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ who’s underrated because of that. In each case, they’re too pretty and too successful so people are jealous. As a result, people assume that they can’t possibly be good actors.
So what was the exact motivation for casting Pattinson in ‘Cosmopolis’?
He’s the right age, he’s got the right screen presence, and when I looked at his other work I thought he’d be really interesting for the role. Casting is a black art – it’s a bit mysterious how you come to these things – and it’s subjective, too, of course. As a director, there are no rules to guide you. You have to go with your gut, ultimately.
[Photo: E1 Entertainment]