David Cronenberg

This interview took place a few days before the New York Film Festival’s gala screening of A Dangerous Method, David Cronenberg’s intellectual adventure film that depicts the famous feud that developed between Freud and Jung during the early days of the psychoanalytic movement by focusing on a third person, Sabina Spielrein. A brilliant, young Russian Jew, Spielrein was treated by Jung for hysteria when she was still a teenager, had an affair with him while she was his patient, graduated from medical school in her early twenties with a degree in psychiatry, and became an analyst herself and an ally of Freud while remaining in love with Jung. The film’s script by Christopher Hampton is based on Hampton’s own 2002 play, The Talking Cure, which was made possible by John Kerr’s 1993 A Most Dangerous Method, a thorough history of the early years of psychoanalysis. Kerr gives prominence to Spielrein’s papers (her diary and her exchanges of letters with Freud and Jung), which were discovered in 1977, 35 years after her death in the Soviet Union at the hands of the Nazis. Cronenberg had long wanted to make a movie about Freud and psychoanalysis. Hampton’s dramatization of Spielrein’s story gave him the narrative handle he needed.

(See “Minds on Fire,” Amy Taubin’s essay on A Dangerous Method in the September/October issue and online.)

I want to focus on a few aspects of A Dangerous Method, which to my surprise proved controversial among critics who saw the film in Toronto or Venice. First, Keira Knightley’s performance, which I think is tremendous.
I understand intellectually why the performance is controversial, but I think it’s very wrongheaded. I think that people who have a problem think that at the beginning of the movie the character is over the top and they equate that with overacting. But Keira and I felt that we were doing a very subdued version of what hysteria was, and what Jung documented as her symptoms. To do it totally accurately would be unbearable to watch. We’ve seen film footage and stills from Charcot and others of what this was like. I said to Keira, “Let’s focus on the face and on the mouth because she’s trying to say unspeakable things, so part of her is trying to get them out and part of her is trying to stop them from coming out. That’s going to cause deformation and all kinds of stuff.” Of course she came up with her own version of that and we thought it was pretty accurate. And then, as the movie goes on, and as Sabina’s symptoms sort of release her, I think she gives a fantastically modulated performance. By the end, you can still feel [the hysteric symptoms] under there, but she’s really changed.

Of course, the stuff at the beginning is uncomfortable to watch. [Sabina] sought treatment because she was incapacitated. She couldn’t function in society. She would be triggered by various things into this deformity and inability to speak and hysterical laughter that would suddenly collapse into tears. So we had to deliver what hysteria is, why Sabina needed treatment, and we needed a level to come down from as her symptoms abate. For me it’s all very straightforward.

For me, she’s the point of identification in the movie.

She was immediately that for me because of what happens in her body and her face in those early scenes. I think you connect kinetically with her, solar plexus to solar plexus. Or you don’t, I guess, and then it must be very alienating.
Part of the genius of Freud was that he insisted that the human body wasn’t separate from the psyche—that things that happen in your body manifest themselves in your mind and vice versa. So his “talking cure” is not just speaking. It’s addressing the body as well, because speech is body. And that’s something Freud understood and we use that understanding in the movie.

Dangerous Method

Can you talk about how you directed Keira. The most difficult thing for an actor to do is to play simultaneous contradictory impulses. She does that so remarkably.
That’s all her. She went to Christopher for a pile of books and then we talked about how much of a Russian accent she should have and what should be the level of hysteria for those early scenes. But how to manifest it was all from her. After three days of shooting we were five days ahead of schedule. I had allotted a lot of time for those early scenes because I didn‘t know what she would need. I hadn’t directed her before. And those extreme scenes were the first scenes we shot. But she was fantastic. She needed very few takes. We were all just awestruck. She was incredibly well-prepared. She had a little binder with all kinds of notes and she would listen to music of the period and then she would just do it.

And what’s more, she was a delight. It wasn’t Method acting in the sense of “Don’t talk to me, I’m in my character.” She would laugh. Viggo [Mortensen] and Michael [Fassbender] are fun-loving guys, as is Vincent [Cassel]. We all are and she was right there with all that. But she would do these amazing things, which leads me to say that she’s among the best actresses I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked with the best. That’s why it bugs me that some people say she’s overacting. She’s hysterical. It’s not just an expression. It meant something at the time, medically.

The other thing that has been written that makes me angry is that this is a conventional, straitlaced, kind of “Masterpiece Theatre” movie.
It was a very laced-up period. You can see it in the costumes, in the men’s stiff white collars and the women’s corsets. It was a time of great repression. But I urge those people to watch a “Masterpiece Theatre” before they compare it, because it isn’t anything like that. They are using that as a bludgeon. Here’s my response: you give the movie what it wants and needs. I’m not thinking about my other movies at all. I don’t care what baggage people think I will bring to the movie. I don’t have that baggage. Once I decide on a project, I am honorable about how I treat it. I am not trying to put some false Cronenbergian imprint on it. Let’s just do the movie. Part of the project was the resurrection of the people and the era. That means it has to be as accurate as possible. I want the people to be as alive as they can be. I want to be able to smell them and hear them in a way that we can’t. It’s a matter of affection. I would like to have known them. That’s the only agenda I have—to honor the accuracy of these people and what they said. They actually said all the stuff they say in the movie; it’s all recorded in their letters because it was a period of letter writing.

And in terms of straitlaced, well, yes. That’s why Freud was so shocking. He insisted on the reality of the human body. He was always talking about penises and vaginas and anuses and excrement. And child abuse, in fact, and incest. These were things that were not acceptable. If you do a movie that’s wild and crazy, that stuff gets lost. It’s only when you show how controlled the society was that you can show how revolutionary and disruptive Freud was. And he knew that. He talked to Jung about that. And Jung says maybe if you didn’t mention the word sex or talk about libido, it would be better. And Freud answers that he has to be honest about what he’s seeing and he can’t sugarcoat it. It’s necessary to portray the era and not with irony or postmodern rethinking. I’m trying to be in that moment—me and the camera right there.

Dangerous Method

Could we talk a bit about the camera? I know you’ve been using a somewhat wide-angle lens in recent films, but what I noticed here specifically is that the spatial distortion of the wide angle creates a disparity in size between the person in the foreground and the person in the background both in two-shots and certain shot/counter shot sequences. It throws a monkey wrench into the idea of subjectivity. It makes equivalence impossible. The other becomes literally smaller than the self. Was that your intention?
I wasn’t thinking about it exactly the way you articulated it. It’s always an intuitive thing. Until we blocked the first scene, I didn’t know how we would shoot it. I didn’t know what lens I would use. I don’t rehearse. I need to be on the actual set with the actual actors and the costumes and the props before I can know how to shoot it. So we block the scene like a piece of theater. Then I show it to my director of photography and the whole crew. And then and only then do I look at the lenses and decide how I want to shoot. We did use wide-angle lenses—25mm and 27mm. Very close to the faces. That means you’re physically close to them, not optically close and physically far away [as with close-up lenses]. I wanted to be close to them and it does have the effect you mentioned. It doesn’t throw the background out of focus, but it does change the shapes and the sizes.

The scene that’s so extraordinary and nails Jung early on as the creep that he was is the one where Jung conducts the free-association experiment on his wife, using Sabina, his potential mistress, as his assistant. It’s amazing in terms of the establishing of the triangle and the circulation of subjectivity and desire.
And it’s all shot with that lens, even the hands. A moment I got very excited about is after his wife leaves and Jung comes back into the room. I thought how are we going to play this, and—I get chills just thinking about it—I said, “Keira, you get up and you take the position of his wife. You put your hands where her hands were, because you’re plotting as well. You’re going to come between him and his wife.” That’s something I didn’t anticipate until we shot the scene.

For me, the issue around Freud wanting to form an alliance with Sabina, basically against Jung, has to do with them both being Jews. I’m surprised more people don’t talk about the importance in the movie of Freud’s Jewishness.
Yes. The Jewish element was huge, and we present it that way. Freud wanted an oblivious Jung to become the leader of the psychoanalytic movement because he was so acceptable. He was Christian and German, and also charismatic and handsome. But mainly, Jung wasn’t Jewish. Freud even says, speaking of his psychoanalytic circle, “We’re all Jews here.” In the accepted anti-Semitism of the Austrian empire, although Jews were treated not too badly, all things considered, they were definitely restricted and discriminated against. They were not allowed to be in the military or in government. Jung even says, speaking about psychoanalysts, they’re all disreputable and degenerate. He meant that they were all Jews and that psychoanalysis could be dismissed as a Jewish science, as another aspect of Jewish mysticism and sensuality and degeneracy. All the Christian intellectuals—Nietzsche, Wagner—were obsessed with Jews and Jewishness. They were constantly trying to figure out what it was and why it was so disturbing to them. And Jung was no different. Jung actually said later that Freudian psychoanalysis only worked on Jews and that Jews should dress differently from other people so we can tell who they are.

And he also sat out World War II by the side of that Swiss lake.
He was Swiss. They’re neutral, right? The obsession with Jewishness and what it meant was immense in the period. And there’s Sabina with her Wagnerian Siegfried fantasy and the sin connected to it. For her, the sin was sex with an Aryan as opposed to incest, as in Wagner’s opera. She wrote about it and we talk about it in the movie. Freud says to her, “Put not your trust in Aryans. We’re Jews, we’ll always be Jews.” To me that’s great stuff and of the essence. It’s not background. It’s true we don’t have pogroms on screen, but Freud was very up front about what Jewishness meant professionally and in every other way.

© 2011 by Amy Taubin