David Cronenberg Discusses His Dangerous Method
We talk with one of modern cinema's great directors about his latest work, his fascination with psychiatry, and his approach to contorting Keira Knightley's face.
Of all the North American directors to emerge in the 1970s, few have been as consistent -- and consistently fascinating -- as Canadian auteur David Cronenberg, the man whose imagination unleashed Videodrome, The Fly, Crash and A History of Violence (to name just a few). While his contemporaries may have courted bigger commercial and critical success, Cronenberg's thematic vision -- whether he's working in genre horror, literary adaptation, or his recent gangster cycle -- has remained singular and endlessly rewarding.
Cronenberg's new film, A Dangerous Method, represents something of an origin piece in his universe, returning to a pivotal moment in the birth of modern psychiatry that predicts the obsession with repressed sexuality, violence and the subconscious so prevalent in his work. Sexual freak du jour Michael Fassbender stars as the young Carl Jung, a doctor whose relationship with his noted mentor, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), is complicated via an emotional tryst with a deranged patient -- and aspiring headshrinker -- Sabina Spielrein, performed with acrobatic terror by Keira Knightley. "I sought to make an elegant film that trades on emotional horror," says Cronenberg. Be afraid, period drama. Be very afraid. We met the director in Los Angeles recently, where he shared his thoughts on psychiatry, hysteria, the connections between his movies... and cigars.
I've been immersing myself in some of your films over the last few days, and here you are.
David Cronenberg: Well you seem to be stable still, so it probably hasn't done too much damage.
I grew up watching them, so the damage has been done.
You were saying around the time of Spider that you weren't interested in a textbook study of Freud, and this certainly isn't one, either. What was the angle that enticed you on A Dangerous Method?
Well, friends of mine have pointed out that the first film I ever did was a seven minute short called Transfer, and it was about a psychiatrist and a patient. That was the very first film I wrote and made. So I've come to think of [A Dangerous Method] as this invention of a brand new relationship that never existed before; that is, the relationship between an analyst and a patient. We think of it now as being almost as primordial as a family relationship, but actually it's quite odd, you know: you go to someone that you've never met, a stranger, and you tell him your most intimate, embarrassing secrets and he has a sort of clinical distance on it and then you gradually begin to project on to him the emotional connections you have to other people. It's quite odd. And it's quite interesting. And it's become a kind of basic human relationship, but it never existed before -- and in some countries it still doesn't, but in the West, certainly. So I think that's part of the core of it; that is to say that Freud has influenced us in ways that are quite unusual and that we aren't completely aware of. I don't think we're remotely finished with Freud.
When I read [screenwriter Christopher Hampton's] play, it felt like the creation of modern relationships, of modernity. That these two men, these professional men, very highly respected and living in a very relatively repressed and controlled era -- which is also a fascination for me, that era in Central Europe just before the First World War -- would talk about the most intimate things. You see that in the movie. They talk about bodily fluids and orifices and organs and erotic dreams and sexuality in a way that men of that era, especially of that class, would never talk to each other about; it was just inappropriate and not done. Now, you know, we accept this, but at the time it was unheard of -- really quite earthshaking and revolutionary. And then, when Sabina appeared, she did the same thing as a woman, speaking to men, also about her eroticism and her masochism. Because they were their own first subjects, that was the thing that was also intriguing; that's why I have Sabina observing herself in the mirror while she's having this S&M sex, because she would have observed herself. They had no other subjects to begin with. When Freud wrote about the interpretation of dreams it was his dreams that he was using as the subject matter because that's all he had at the time. They were just starting off and inventing this thing, psychoanalysis. All of that was intriguing to me.
They were pioneers, out on the edge and experimenting on themselves -- like many of your other scientist protagonists; Seth Brundle being perhaps the most famous example.
Yeah. I mean, it's obvious that I'm interested in characters whose intellect leads them to places that are perhaps not socially acceptable, or to new places. I've come to think that, for example, psychoanalysis and art do similar things in some ways. I don't really think of art as therapy -- that's not what I mean. What I mean is that the psychoanalyst and the artist, we're presented an official version of reality that the culture kind of generates, but we say, "Okay, that's good for as far as it goes, but what's really going on under the hood?" And we dive underneath, we go underneath and we find the springs and levers; we find the hidden motivations, the dark things that people don't talk about or don't understand, and we look for that and try and bring it out. So I think that, in a way then, these scientists and doctors of mine are sort of circuits for artists or just, you know, for my projection -- of what I think I'm doing.
It's interesting that you bring up Transfer, because the relationship in the film -- like that in A Dangerous Method -- is a patient stalking their psychiatrist.
Basically the only relationship he's had, that means anything to him, is the relationship he has to his psychoanalyst, yeah.
Was there a sense of having come full circle in your career when people reminded you of it?
Well, as I say, until a close friend had pointed it out, I'd forgotten about that. I wasn't even thinking about it. And this is something that comes up a lot, but basically I don't really think about my other movies when I'm making movies; they're completely irrelevant to me -- to this movie. Whatever movie I'm making, the only thing that I bring with me from the other movies is my confidence in the craft, you know -- I know how to make movies; I've done those things -- but I don't think about them thematically, or how they connect thematically; that actually, creatively doesn't give me anything in order to make this movie, you understand what I mean?
After the fact you can step back and say, "Wow, that's an interesting parallel." For example, I can say this. I can say Freud, okay: In one way, what Freud did was to insist on the reality of the human body. At a time when the body was covered up and cloaked and people wore stiff rigid collars and women wore corsets, he was talking about orifices and bodily fluids and the sexual abuse of children and incest and stuff, and so that connects him to me and my other movies -- because for me, I've said in the past, the first fact of human existence is the human body. But when I was making the movie, when I was attracted to it, that thought was not anywhere in my mind. So that's me sort of stepping back and being an analyst of my own work -- which comes out when people ask, really. It's not something that I automatically just do for fun. But it also is not something that I bring to the movie, you know; I don't really bring that to the movie, because really, creatively, what would that give me? It doesn't really give me anything. I get excited about this movie for itself, and the research involved into these characters. That's what motivates me and excites me.
It is curious how things do recur in your films. For example, when Sabina is playing with her food in A Dangerous Method, it reminded me so much of Judy Davis kneading the typewriter flesh in Naked Lunch.
Oh yes. But I absolutely never thought of it. I haven't really looked at Naked Lunch since I made it, so I don't even 100 per cent remember it, you know. I don't deny that those things are there, and I don't deny that they're interesting, but as I say, a lot of people think that I go into a movie with a checklist of things that must be there for me to make the movie, and they're all connected to my other movies. But I absolutely don't. It's all intuitive and instinctive.