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A Dangerous Method. 2011. Directed by David Cronenberg. Screenplay by Christopher Hampton, based on his play The Talking Cure.
Starring Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Gadon, & Vincent Cassel. Telefilm Canada/Ontario Media Development Corporation/Corus Entertainment/eOne Films.
Rated 14A. 99 minutes.
I’ll say it loud and proud ’till the day I die: I am one of David Cronenberg’s biggest fans.
His films are incredible slices of human life twisted around the innovations of everything from technology to media to psychology, as well as all sorts of other themes and topics. While his earlier work is dominated mostly by the physiological, over the past decade or so Cronenberg has kept his eeriness as he’s moved towards examining aspects of the mind. Cronenberg first moved slightly from body horror in 2002 with the Ralph Fiennes-starring Spider, which examined the fractured mind of the titular character through years of psychological torment. Then came A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, both taking a look at the fluid identities of dangerous men involved in the world of organized crime.
But if the second act of Cronenberg’s career has shifted focus more towards psychology then the granddaddy of them all is A Dangerous Method.
Via screenplay written by Christopher Hampton – based on his own play The Talking Cure, which is also based on the book A Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein – the audience is transported into the relationship between groundbreaking psychiatrists Drs. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, along with the presence of Sabina Spielrein, who went on to become one of the world’s first female psychoanalysts. The style Cronenberg brings here is his typically great eye for framing and an overall gift of storytelling. But more than that he takes his talents in the arena of body horror and manages to make the psychologically uneasy aspects of this story all the more affecting.
A few reviews I remember seeing when this was first released accused Knightley’s performance of being hammy, over-the-top, among other suggested negatives. There’s no way I can agree. In the initial scenes you can grasp the incredible emotional trauma of Sabina, as Knightley dives directly into this woman’s skin. It is a fearless performance from the top. Sabina was a hysteric, and that is how many of them are prone to behaving. Although her accent doesn’t always hit the perfect mark, her overall performance is solid. Her energy as an actress has always been good. Never more formidable than here.
The chemistry between Knightley and Fassbender is fiery, too. For his part, he brings Jung to the screen with an odd charm, one which slowly evaporates over the course of the film. At first he seems a proper man whose interests lie solely in psychiatry, unearthing new practices and honing old ones to modern methodologies and more modern issues/illnesses. Partway through there’s a gradual realization Jung is as repressed, if not more so in some ways, than some of the patients he treats. Through Fassbender we find Jung’s human side and also his hideous one. He seeps talent in every film in which he stars, this is no exception.
Finally, it’s the even more amazing chemistry between Fassbender and Mortensen that makes this film so engaging. Mortensen has a good look for Freud, as well as the fact he captures the air of the men well, right down to little details such as the constant cigar smoking, the pensive and animated conversation, his calm demeanour and way of speaking. He and Fassbender play well off one another – the former with a highly serious tone and set of mannerisms, the other a slightly more loose and freewheeling type. Together, as the tension rises from one conversation to the next, their performances reel us into a psychoanalytic world of ego, jealousy, competition. And their subtle touches as actors, along with the well written screenplay, gives them the ability to work without melodrama. These two together offer nothing but the best.
Jung: “Only the wounded physician can hope to heal”
Part of Jung’s resentment of Freud is that the latter seems to have no problem with sex. Maybe he’s not a ladies man either, yet he willingly dives headlong into sexuality as the root of just about every problem we as humans experience. Meanwhile, it is clear Jung had hangups, which emerged vividly in his relationship with Sabina. So Jung likely thought Freud’s preoccupation and fixation on sex was ill conceived simply because of his own desire to break free sexually, a.k.a cheat on his wife.
One major reason I love A Dangerous Method is because it takes a long, hard, raw look at people who are widely regarded as geniuses in the field of psychiatry. Of course anyone in the know realized Freud was into cocaine, as well as other bits and pieces of both his and Jung’s life. However, exposing the darkness underneath all the masterful work is something intriguing. In that way, Cronenberg further digs into the mind: the collective mind. As we try to believe doctors and other figures of such authority are often better than ourselves, we often forget they are simply human.
The conversations between Freud and Jung are wonderful, in acting and writing. Tension mounts as their opposing views bump up against one another, rubbing each other raw. Every conversation seems to get a little more anxious, each one has more attitude – often from Freud – and the relationship between these two great thinkers deteriorates, almost invisible to their own eyes as it’s happening. Then all of a sudden they’ve grown miles apart during the interim. The progression and downfall of their relationship is certainly precipitated by the affair Jung engages in with Sabina. But the inflated egos of both Freud and Jung lay the foundation for a breeding ground of contempt between them, an inescapable and unavoidable rift.
There are absolutely some flaws to this movie. The fact remains A Dangerous Method is a complex and interesting piece of cinema facilitated by the prodding mind of David Cronenberg. Without a focus on body horror, he puts a tight lens on the horrors of psychology. The dangerous method in question lays waste to the mental capacities and thought processes of Carl Jung, as it also taints Sigmund Freud and Sabina Spielrein. The famous Talking Cure is of course a great thing, one that’s given birth to what we know today as therapy, couples counselling, and so much more.
At the same time, the Talking Cure can lead to dangerous things if not taken by the reins. Someone like Jung, particularly in his affair and resulting mess involving Sabina, talked too much, and perhaps needed his own therapy while falling under the influence of first Freud, then Sabina in her own way, even Otto Gross and his ruminations on the uselessness of monogamy
This true story about the burgeoning days of modern psychiatry and psychoanalysis is a 4-star film with a trio of fabulous performances, the ultimate driving force behind its impact. Great directing, great acting, and a solid screenplay. If you have an interest in the topics at hand, check this out, but either way it is still a nice, interesting work of historical drama that gives us insight into the towering figures of Freud and Jung now that the past few decades have pulled further back the curtain on their personalities and personal lives.
Shivers. 1975. Directed & Written by David Cronenberg.
Starring Paul Hampton, Joe Silver, Lynn Lowry, Allan Kolman, Susan Petrie, Barbara Steele, Ronald Mlodzik, Barry Baldaro, Camil Ducharme, Hanna Poznanska, Wally Martin, Vlasta Vrana, Silvie Debois, Charles Perley, & Al Rochman. Cinépix/DAL Productions/Canadian Film Development Corporation.
Rated R. 87 minutes.
Even if I love Alien to death and think it’s a masterpiece of cinema, the fact remains that Dan O’Bannon definitely saw David Cronenberg’s Shivers a.k.a They Came From Within. And not just that, he loved it. This was the original piece of dreadful science-fiction-horror that preyed upon an isolated environment, high up above everything else, a nearly self-contained atmosphere where a predator on the inside starts to take out the residents, one by one. Just like Weyland-Yutani were terraforming and the government or whoever were planning to use the Xenomorphs for sinister purpose, the creatures of Shivers were created for a purpose but then that purpose went terribly awry. Is it a coincidence then that the residential apartment complex where this film is set happens to be named Starliner? I’m not accusing O’Bannon of anything. He’s already been accused, anyways. I enjoy the little similarities because it shows the legacy and intrigue of Cronenberg. He is an important artist who dares to ask questions about human nature, the social effects of technology and medicine and more, as well as so many other things. Only his third feature, Shivers asks of us what the price of advancement is in terms of our social lives, as a whole in society. The more we isolate ourselves, jamming our life into smaller spaces so that we can cram more people in around us, the further at risk we put ourselves of becoming something entirely other. In that case, there is no progress, no evolution. We only evolve into something mindless, swallowed whole by a concern for economic and social status, consumed by our consumption. Through his trademark body horror Cronenberg explores the terrifying downfall of a society within society inside the Starliner apartment building, and much like J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise, as well as the recent Ben Wheatley adaptation, this film depicts how a self-contained environment can eat itself alive
The big horror here is Cronenberg’s use of phallic, slug-like creatures to represent an invasion of otherness. Again, it is man-made. But it is other, a parasite. What we know know as typical Cronenberg comes here through those slugs squirming their way into the human body. Of course it happens many ways. However, the most eerie and prominent in this screenplay is sexual intercourse. These parasites drive the hosts sex crazy. One of the first women we see infected attacks a man and yells, terrifyingly enough: “I‘m hungry. Hungry for love!” Later, the most disturbing moment for me is when a family of three that were earlier stuck in an elevator are now infected, and they tackle a man; the little girl kisses him on the lips with her bloody mouth. This one scene really gets to me, as it is creepy anyways, but then with the girl kissing the man, the blood on her, the family all gone raving mad. It’s a sight to behold. Otherwise, Cronenberg does give us a few graphically pukeworthy practical effects, as the slugs slip out of mouths, flop out onto clear umbrellas leaving yucky streaks, one even slips its way up from a bathtub drain and between the legs of an unsuspecting woman (precursor to Craven’s famous bathtub scene in A Nightmare on Elm Street). So many effective, bloody little moments.
Amongst everything else, the symbolism of Cronenberg’s Shivers is what makes it a worthy and enduring piece of Canadian cinema. While there’s the invasion of otherness and becoming something else, there are more elements at play. The whole sexual angle of people just trying to ravish everyone, gone mental from lust, this comes to represent how the close proximity to the others in these buildings, jamming everybody together no matter if it’s high class suites or what is a recipe for social disaster. Essentially, it is the idea of assimilation, the conformity to a group norm and a way of life that’s accepted as singular. Because they’re not attacking each other like madmen and madwomen, they collectively seek out more people to pass the parasite onto. So it’s like this roaming group of social power, these parasitic citizens of the Starliner apartment complex gradually spreading their diseased love around until finally everybody has conformed, they all fit perfectly in their little boxed apartments(/compartments).
Also, if you want to go deeper, the idea of all these people living in a deluxe apartment complex sort of quarantined off from the rest of society can serve as a statement about how the upper class is sort of an incestuous group of people that perpetuate a system of disease amongst themselves by remaining sectioned away in their own little world. Not everybody here is big time rich or anything. But it’s a suburban residential building, so we’re certainly not talking about a rough neighbourhood. So the way these people descend into a madness of orgy and violence is a comment on how these people mingle only with their own kind, and anyone from outside – such as the man who worked with Dr. Hobbes, the original one guilt of scientific hubris by inventing the sex slugs – ends up killed. The new people, they’re simply indoctrinated and likewise infected with the parasitic, aphrodisiac slugs. So these types of cut-off suburban environments within societies only begets more isolation, in turn more madness.
That climactic scene where the Starliner’s own doctor, Roger St. Luc, who’d been fighting against the parasitic invasion this whole time finds himself being crowded and mauled in the pool with all the residents is a doozy. It is the epitome of the anxieties of the suburban social life, closed and boxed in, stuck into the cookie cutter frame with all the other mindless, sex-crazed, consumerist zombies. Honestly, there are few scenes in a film which get to me as deeply and have resonated as long-lasting as this one did. From the first time I saw this film about 12 years ago or so, it stuck. And watching it again now, especially where the kiss lands on St. Luc, similar to how the frame slows down on it like with the little girl earlier, the impact is just as weighty.
There are obviously flaws, as this is a low budget picture and also it was one of David Cronenberg’s first trio of feature films ever. With Shivers, he began to explore the physiological body horror that went on to become his trademark, and here his interest in the social life of humans started to really take off. In a disturbing, poignant fashion. Initially dismissed as completely useless, particularly after the CFDC and others were not happy about its content, Shivers has gone on to be better understood, also more appreciated by certain people. By no means perfect it has a unique charm. Moreover, it is effective body horror with plenty to please even some seasoned veterans of the genre.
Cronenberg is certainly king in the realm of body horror. Always. Forever.
Videodrome. 1983. Directed & Written by David Cronenberg.
Starring James Woods, Debbie Harry, Sonja Smits, Peter Dvorsky, Leslie Carlson, Jack Creley, Lynne Gorman, Julie Khaner, Reiner Schwarz, David Bolt, Lally Cadeau, Henry Gomez, Harvey Chao, David Tsubouchi, & Kay Hawtrey. Canadian Film Development Corporation/Famous Players/Filmplan International/Guardian Trust Company/Victor Solnicki Productions.
Rated R. 87 minutes.
The films of David Cronenberg are wonderful metaphors for the modern world. He often seems to navigate our brain waves, collectively as a society. His screenplays examine the fears and paranoia of modern people, taking us away from the classical film perspective on science fiction and horror. Perhaps single-handedly he gave birth to the body horror genre. While many people after him tried attaining the same level of horror on a physiological level, none have ever been able to match both his disturbing gruesomeness, nor his sophistication as a writer. Others might say Cronenberg is not nearly as good of a writer as he is a director. However, I completely disagree. Even his first novel, Consumed, is a buffet of well-written madness.
But above all his work, Videodrome may reign supreme. Definitely the most hotly debated film of his catalogue, up there with eXistenZ. But its implications are some of the most interesting, some of the realest and most unnerving of all the stories he’s chosen to tell. Inspired by the teachings of Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, Cronenberg crafted this tale of futuristic media gone insane to dive headlong into how media affects us, its purpose, as well as why our connection to media seems to have become so visceral overall as a society. Offering no answers, only a vision of what may come to pass someday – looking more likely as the years roll on – Videodrome shows us a world of our making should we continue a dangerous relationship with media, its various mediums, the images it puts into our brains.
Max Renn (James Woods) is a small-time cable man, running CIVIC-TV which deals in a lot of softcore pornography and violent material. He searches out the best, sleaziest content in order to satisfy his viewers. He wants something groundbreaking. CIVIC-TV’s satellite operator Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) then shows him a program called Videodrome, seemingly broadcast from somewhere in Asia, which is a show without plot, senseless torture and murder in a bare clay-like chamber inflicted upon a struggling victim.
From there his life becomes more complicated. After meeting Nick Brand (Deborah Harry), a psychiatrist and radio host who also happens to engage in BDSM play, things get even more murky. He comes in contact with Professor Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley) and also a man named Barry Convex (Leslie Carlson), both of whom expose him to very terrifying new aspects of reality.
No longer will the things you watch on television be on television, in that they will no longer be fake. They will be an authentic, real experience. You’ll watch everything on a television screen. Because everything will be television. It will all be real. No more are there then shows or films, real life is media. Media is real life. Our minds will become so synonymous with media in its many forms that there’ll be no need to tune in on a box in your living room, as the technology will literally be us; the human body. Such is the large fleshy slit, the media orifice which Max Renn sprouts later on in the film – a VHS tape is inserted directly inside him, as there isn’t any middle equipment to separate flesh from objects.
Even further, media will influence is, as it already does. We see this very clearly at one point early on when Renn receives his secretary at his place; he believes to have hit her, seeing it lifelike and raw. Although, nothing like it has happened. He even sees himself switching from his secretary to Nicki. And like Renn, whose body ingests a gun and makes it a part of his bodily makeup, this influence of media will become a part of us, ingrained in our memories, in our touch – “Television is reality, and reality is less than television,” just as Brian O’Blivion tells us. Similar to how The Brood concerned a manifestation, a physical and living manifestation of rage, Videodrome is a body horror in regards to the infiltration of media into our minds, as well as our bodies.
One thing, though, which must be remembered – this is a first-person narrative. We see as Max sees. So, even while things seem as they do from O’Blivion’s perspective, the madness and the hallucinatory body horror is a part of Max’s delusion. All these things before are still true, in a sense, as they’re part of the way media has ultimately influenced him. Through an elaborate plot, Renn becomes a tool of violence after his exposure to so much sex and violence. It gradually grips him tight until he’s seemingly a part of some grand war between different factions of a two-sided conflict over media and its proper use.
So all the metaphorical bits and pieces of Videodrome are great. Even better are the fascinating practical effects, courtesy of designer Rick Baker – one of the legendary effects artists in the movie business. Here, he helps Cronenberg realize the terror of this media affected world in which lives the screenplay. There are so many that it’s hard to touch on them all. Some of the best then. One favourite is when Renn is sitting on his couch, he slowly starts to itch at a sore spot on his lower stomach. Until finally it’s an open, gaping, vagina-like orifice, and then his gun gets lost in it. Later, after he manages to get hold of the gun inside him, he pulls it out and the things grafts into his hand; or at least, that’s what Max sees anyways. Often people will talk about the television screen extending out. My favourite is later when Renn is shot in the chest and stomach, then we cut to a television with its screen looking like Renn’s body, blood oozing from bullet wounds. Such a great effect. Of course the nasty death of Convex is a rough one, shockingly well executed. Baker is truly one of a dying breed, those who are capable of bringing to life horror with their hands and making it real. The Criterion release has lots of nice stuff on the effects and everything else, so that’s a highly recommended purchase for those who are fans of this film.
Added to the effects, Howard Shore, longtime collaborator of Cronenberg, provides us with an eerie score that has lots of synthesizers, as usual. Also there are these organ pieces, which casts everything in such an ominous tone. What I enjoy about this is how the film is a modern horror, but Shore infuses it with this old school, classic horror feel using those specific organ compositions. It’s a real mindfuck, in a sense. As usual, Shore adds his solid punch to Cronenberg’s hypnotic, twisted images, and the film is all the better for it.
James Woods does a fantastic job as Max Renn. He is so confident and sure of himself at the start. As time goes by, Renn devolves into a paranoid man, more and more. Until almost coming full circle, as he embraces “the new flesh” and starts to take matters into his own hands, then he is confident once more in a new sense. The charisma of Woods works well with the beginning of Renn’s character arc. He’s capable of playing those edgy, crazy sort of characters, so the evolution of Max becomes an interesting thing to see.
Along with Woods, Debbie Harry is awesome here. She plays a disturbing character, but everything from her look to demeanour fits Nicki appropriately. Her eerie calmness throughout some of the more vicious moments is definitely unsettling. Also, she sort of plays Nicki like this blank canvas, a veritable open book upon which violence is written, and she becomes this kind of muse for Renn, in a macabre way. Her and Woods have chemistry together that’s dark and dangerous, which serves their characters’ relationship well.
Cronenberg is not for everybody. He is not the sort of science fiction or horror that anybody will pick up and just get into. Certainly not for date movies, unless you’ve got a really cool partner like yourself. But Videodrome particularly is probably Cronenberg’s best work. It is visceral, filled with explicitly graphic violence, body horror, lots of sexualized violence. Yet every last drop of it has a purpose. This is a metaphorical, metaphysical story of our relationship with media. So strap in, take a ride with this one. Maybe you’ll think twice about watching those clips of beheadings on the dark side of the web next time.
The Brood. 1979. Directed & Written by David Cronenberg.
Starring Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggar, Art Hindle, Henry Beckman, Nuala Fitzgerald, Cindy Hinds, Susan Hogan, Gary McKeehan, Michael Magee, Robert A. Silverman, Joseph Shaw, Larry Solway, Reiner Schwarz, Felix Sillas, & John Ferguson. Canadian Film Development Corporation/Elgin International Films Ltd./Mutual Productions Ltd./Victor Solnicki Productions.
Rated R. 92 minutes.
As one of the crowned jewels of the Canadian film industry, David Cronenberg continually fascinates me as a filmmaker and storyteller. So much of his work deals in body horror, particularly his early films up until the post-2000s. The Brood may be one of his most impressive works of body horror. It tackles several aspects of psychology, as well as the idea that psychological symptoms manifest themselves physically, which they do. However, Cronenberg turns this idea into something gruesome, personal, something macabre and beyond reality. Yet all the while this film treats everything so clinically. Even with the wild sci-fi elements, Cronenberg’s 1979 classic is so painfully honest about its real life aims. Everything he has ever done with body horror is a metaphor; to how we live in this world, how we relate to it, to others, and everything in between. Although taking swipes at the field of psychology in certain respects, The Brood is also about the rift between people that not only causes damage in their relationship but to everyone surrounding them, too. Above all, the rage of this movie stands in for that which two people sometimes experience when their relationship is at odds – an all-encompassing rage that gives birth to nasty things we’d rather believe never existed in us.
At the Somafree Institute, psychotherapist Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) uses a modern, edgy technique as therapy for his patients: psychoplasmics. He acts out scenarios with his patients, as well as encourages them to let their suppressed emotions express themselves physically. Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar) is an emotionally troubled woman whose divorce battle with husband Frank (Art Hindle) over the custody of their five-year-old Candice (Cindy Hinds) has become incredibly ugly. Under care of Dr. Raglan, Nola undergoes psychoplasmics treatment. Meanwhile, strange and dangerous things start to happen around the Carveth family. First, Nola’s mother dies. Then her father.
And slowly, Dr. Raglan finally realizes his treatments are the danger giving spark to the fire of Nola’s disturbed mind. As Frank struggles to keep his daughter safe, Nola’s physically embodied rage and repression gives birth to pure terror, which puts everyone close to her in peril.
I know Cronenberg admittedly wrote this during a fiery divorce. That’s evident. All the same, like literature to truly experience and interpret a work it is not necessary to worry about the author’s own personal life. No matter close and parallel to the work it may seem. While on the surface this is simply a personal drama blown up into the larger, nastier proportions of a horror film, The Brood is a great analogy for the dangers of repression, as well as the danger of improper psychiatry all at once. First of all, considering the Nola Carveth character, she is a damaged woman. Through the plot she is revealed to have suffered physical and mental abuse from her mother, effectively ignored by her father. So part of this whole story is the repression of her womanhood, the silencing of her voice as a woman by her mother, her father denying her of identity through his silence. All this turns to rage and she expresses is to devastating effect via psychoplasmics with Raglan, turning it into an unstoppable force. On one hand, a warning about how repressed feelings and buried emotion can unearth itself in horrific, devastating ways. On the other, there’s Raglan and his cowboy psychotherapy. He plays with peoples lives. Not all psychologists/psychiatrists are like that, obviously. But there are some, like in any profession, whose concern is only for themselves. Raglan pushes and pushes until Nola becomes this completely monstrous thing oozing hate. Similar to how some psychotherapists play fast and loose with the mental health of their patients prescribing too much medication, not the right stuff, using therapy which doesn’t work, and so on. Using the concept of the literal birthing of rage, Cronenberg expresses this dangerous psychotherapy quite well. And from this springs all the terrific horror he imagines onscreen.
In addition, the rage and the creatures represent the bad blood between a married couple going through an ugly divorce. A situation like that creates a poisonous cloud that can infect many others, not just the two directly concerned parties – it moves to the children, the family, the close friends, the next lovers. So look at it how you will, the premise of this movie works in many different lights. The rage of Nola is symbolic of a host of issues, disturbingly perfect in later shots of the film.
The performances are solid, particularly from Samantha Eggar and Art Hindle. Oliver Reed is pretty good, too. Hindle plays the concerned, confused husband and father well. He also doesn’t play it over-the-top, which many actors might have done. Instead he’s a calculated and thoughtful character, whose actions come as very natural. I always love him, anyways. But his Frank is solid here. Then there’s Eggar. She plays Nola perfectly. There’s a manic look in her eyes sometimes that’s downright shocking. It still creeps me out now when I think of it. And her delivery is so wonderful. Her performance is a treat all around. She plays well off both Hindle, and especially Reed. Not sure if anybody else could’ve played this role. Something I’ve said before, but here that sentiment is beyond true. Her presence is full of disturbing power, a real classic.
A totally bonkers 5-star film that uses all its force to drive home a metaphorical point about repression, rage, the density of emotion, the dangers of psychology. So many things. Perhaps Cronenberg’s best film, as it works on that level of metaphor, as well as simply on an excellently gruesome level as just a solid horror.