I’m not exactly a cultist for David Cronenberg – I didn’t think A History of Violence was very convincing, or even that The Fly was a great horror film – but I was primed, in Toronto, to see A Dangerous Method, in which Viggo Mortensen plays Sigmund Freud and Michael Fassbender plays Carl Jung. Keira Knightley – yes, Keira Knightley – plays the sexed-up, tormented Russian Jewish hysteria patient-turned-psychoanalyst prodigy who comes between the two of them. When you consider that Freud and Jung, along with Einstein, were arguably the most influential thinkers of the last hundred years, there have been precious few dramatic features that have attempted to deal with who they really were. (Montgomery Clift played Freud in a 1962 John Huston biopic, and that movie was every bit as repressed as it sounds.) I went into A Dangerous Method eager to see Freud and Jung come to life on screen as they might, perhaps, have really been. And Cronenberg, at his most restrained, delivers – the movie, though less overtly exciting than some of his others, gave me just what I wanted. It’s a play of sensuality and ideas rooted in the opposing spirits (rational vs. mystical, Jewish Austrian vs. Protestant Swiss) of these two infamous allies-turned-adversaries.
The movie is framed as Jung’s story, and Fassbender, courtly and polite, hidden behind a clockmaker’s mustache, makes the bourgeois but searching Jung a paradoxical explorer: He’s devoted to his wealthy wife (Sarah Gadon), and to the children she keeps bringing forth, yet Knightley’s Sabina, who becomes his patient and lover, represents more than temptation. She’s his chance to break on through to the other side – to the secret dark truth of pain, masochism, and sex as creative destruction. Knightley’s performance, with its gargantuan mood swings from jaw-gnashing psychosis to femme-fatale hunger, has already divided a lot of people at the festival, but I think she works just fine. The movie’s real, tragic love story is the increasingly frayed bond between Freud and Jung.
Freud, who Jung reveres as a mentor and father figure, accepts the erotic intensity of everyday life but has no real use for it. He’s the man who defined the pleasure principle, yet his holy mission is to figure out how to live within its boundaries. It was a stroke of inspiration to cast the virile, rock-solid confident Mortensen as the godfather of neurosis. Puffing on a cigar, he makes Freud a charismatic control freak, a man all too eager to engage in dream analysis yet too much of a self-designated authority figure to put his own dreams up for dissection. Jung, working in his own clinic in Switzerland, starts out as Freud’s disciple, but when Jung begins to advocate for the irrational, for the power of coincidence, for sex as magic, he’s really arguing for a different kind of psychoanalysis – for hope in place of determinism. Fassbender brings Jung the tormented angelic mind-bender to life. He and Mortensen turn Jung and Freud into X-men of the unconscious. They know they’re freaks, and that’s their liberation.
The two get locked in a war that’s really a tango of egos and ideals. Yet for some of us, Freud and Jung are hardly opposed. I personally couldn’t imagine the philosophy of one without the other. In a funny way, A Dangerous Method is Cronenberg’s libido-driven Masterpiece Theatre movie. At times, it’s a little staid, yet it’s the first Cronenberg film in a while that feels justified in putting itself on the couch.
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Werner Herzog is a god at this festival, where his brilliant documentaries, in recent years, have played to greater and greater acclaim. He had a special triumph last year with the anthro-mystical catacomb-painting meditation Cave of Forgotten Dreams, so you’d better believe that people were primed for his new film, Into the Abyss, a tale of bloody murder in Texas that is also the director’s statement against capital punishment. Before the first showing, Herzog, looking natty in a dark suit, and speaking in that inimitable sing-song Teutonic Yoda English of his, got up on stage and said, quite simply, that he had no real “argument” to make against capital punishment, just a story to tell – though he added that no German he knew of his generation, who came up under the shadow of the Nazi era, could tolerate the concept of state-sponsored executions.
The audience loved the movie. And when Herzog is working in his open-eyed, discursive, stranger-than-fiction mode, I tend to feel the same way. But I’m afraid that I’m going to have to dissent, big time, on Into the Abyss. I absolutely hated the movie; I thought it was rambling, dishonest, and – a rarity for Herzog – timid rather than exploratory. It wants to be Herzog’s Dead Man Walking, but it’s basically a bad episode of A Current Affair with gothic-redneck flourishes and a tacked-on liberal message it never earns.
In the small town of Conroe, Texas, Herzog visits a death-row inmate, Michael Perry (pictured, above), who is 28 years old and scheduled to die on July 1, 2010. A decade before, when he was a carousing teenager, he’d been convicted, along with his friend Jason Burkett, of a triple homicide. These two broke into a home inside a gated community, and before long they had slaughtered an acquaintance’s mother (while she was baking cookies) and, a short while later, murdered two teenagers. Herzog shows us hideous, gore-splattered crime-scene video, yet he doesn’t quite seem to grasp the nature of this crime. He buys completely into a policeman’s repeated statement that three people died so that the killers (who claimed to be innocent; each one of them blamed the other) could steal a red Camero from the garage. Oh, the irony of violent crime! But a murder as gruesome as this one doesn’t arise out of a desire to steal. It arises out of an appetite to commit gruesome murder.
Herzog spends a lot of time talking to the buck-toothed, ignorant, sociopathically detached Michael Perry, presenting him as a guy who knows that he caused a lot of pain and now regrets it. But the director never really tries to get inside the darkness of Perry’s mind. (The Herzog I love would have been dying to enter that cave.) He treats the murder as a distant, “bygone” fact and, in the process, defuses its horrific reality. He also interviews family members of the victims, and certainly, he allows them to express the depths of their agony and rage and loss. But I’d have been more comfortable if the film didn’t seem to be taking an almost lip-smacking delight in the trailer-trash garishness of a lot of the people it shows us. By the time Herzog interviews a man whose job it was to coordinate executions, and presided over 125 of them before he quit out of disgust, the film’s message couldn’t be clearer: Vicious young killers are human beings too. Well, yes, but if Herzog had been more unsparing about their viciousness, their evil, then perhaps his plea for their humanity would have given you chills and not just the creeps.
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