Postcard from Venice: Freud and Jung Duke It Out in Dangerous Method; Louis Garrel's Latest Flatlines
David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, screening here at the festival in competition, is probably the most fun you'll ever have watching a movie about Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud duking it out -- and nurturing a deep-rooted but fragile friendship -- in early 20th century Austria and Switzerland. In fact, when I first saw Viggo Mortensen done up in his trim little Freud beard, I nearly laughed out loud -- not because he looked ridiculous, but because he looked so right. Mortensen has become one of Cronenberg's go-to guys in recent years, and you can see why: Even in a period film like this one -- a picture that runs the heavy risk of being ponderous and stiff -- he can slip himself into the scenery with a "Don't mind me, here in my Sigmund Freud getup" naturalness.
That's not true of everyone in the picture, particularly Keira Knightley, who has to navigate a particularly difficult entrance: Knightley plays Sabina Spielrein, a young Russian woman who would go on to become a renowned psychoanalyst herself, but when we first see her, she's a hysterical creature being carted off to a hospital, kicking and screaming, in a horse-drawn carriage. Michael Fassbender's Jung is the doctor in charge of treating her, and she's in the midst of a fit when he first sits her down: Her neck is drawn long and tight, her eyes pop, her jaw juts out so far it looks as if it might detach from her face. It's a lot of acting -- maybe not good acting -- but it sure gets the point across.
Knightley gets better scene by scene, and the movie does too: Cronenberg is working from a script by Christopher Hampton (the movie is based on his play, The Talking Cure, as well as on John Kerr's book A Most Dangerous Method), and his control over the material is both masterful and confident in its lightness. There's some kinky sex in A Dangerous Method, particularly a discreet spanking episode, but Cronenberg makes it neither exploitive nor so tasteful that it loses its charge. He's hip to the allure of the forbidden, but he doesn't get carried away by it.
Cronenberg is a skilled and astute filmmaker, but he has an unfortunate tendency to take himself too seriously. His disciplined offhandedness is key here, and his actors thrive in the atmosphere he's created for them. Fassbender has the great gift of being able to forget how good-looking he is: His Jung is gentlemanly, thoughtful, dutiful, as upstanding as the starched white collar he wears. It all goes kerflooey when he's tempted by forbidden fruit, and Fassbender works that transition beautifully: His facial features are so classically composed -- he looks so preternaturally stable and trustworthy -- that when you see him play a character torn between intellect and the sexual impulse, you understand the costs involved.
And his exchanges with Mortensen's Freud are among the movie's greatest pleasures. He's the straight man to Mortensen's sly jokester. At their first meeting, Freud listens patiently as Jung outlines Spielrein's symptoms in great detail. He offers one observation, which Jung rejects; he offers another that Jung also pooh-poohs. "Well," he says, after waiting one patient beat, "perhaps it's a Russian thing." In A Dangerous Method Cronenberg takes this meeting of minds and finds the crackle in the connection. It's never dull for a moment, which is an achievement for a movie about two guys who built whole therapeutic disciplines around the acts of talking and listening. Cronenberg is attuned to the inherent drama, and the pitfalls, in what these men did. As a filmmaker, he's as good a listener as he is a talker.
Although Phillippe Garrel's Un été brûlant appeared in the early days of the festival, it's already certain to be one of the week's certified stinkers. I had to fill in some of the plot points for a fellow critic who'd fallen asleep, though I'm not sure how I managed to stay awake through it myself. Louis Garrel (the director's son) stars as a listless French artiste who's stuck living in Rome with a voluptuous Italian actress played by Monica Belluci. No wonder he's so sad! In the movie's opening, he drives his car into a tree, but unfortunately, he lives on in flashback: We see him mooning about, entertaining friends in his casual-elegant Rome digs, talking endlessly about how sad and confused he is as he shows off God-awful paintings that, if you made them, would probably make you drive your car into a tree too.
The only performer here who provides anything to watch is Céline Sallette, as the girlfriend of Garrel's best pal: She has the face of a real person, which makes her seem like an alien in this atmosphere of idiocy and self-absorption. Even Belluci, normally a sultry presence, is just a drag. But Louis Garrel is the worst. Garrel has made a career out of playing bored youths who appear to be entranced by their own good looks, and he'd better find a new schtick fast. So what if he looks like a Roman god? That doesn't mean he has to act like one.
Read more of Stephanie Zacharek's Venice Film Festival coverage here