David Cronenberg, Michael Fassbender Bring Their Dangerous Method to NYFF

How does Keira Knightley devour so much scenery in A Dangerous Method yet stay so thin? That was the big question Tuesday at Lincoln Center, where her director David Cronenberg and co-star Michael Fassbender dropped by to meet the press ahead of tonight's New York Film Festival premiere of Method.

All right, so that wasn't the exact question for Cronenberg, whose leading lady couldn't make the afternoon panel comprising himself, Fassbender, screenwriter Christopher Hampton, producer Jeremy Thomas and NYFF programmer extraordinaire Scott Foundas. But it basically does get to the immediate issue with A Dangerous Method, a terminally dramatic glimpse at the overlapping relationships between Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (Fassbender), his hysterical patient-turned-masochist lover-turned-gifted protégé Sabina Speilrein (Knightley), and the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). Set in the decade before World War I, their tempestuous romantic and intellectual clashes presage the ravaged Europe to come, right down to one character's haunting apocalyptic visions. What they don't quite do is congeal in any especially cinematic way, transplanting instead the chatty conventions of Hampton's source play The Talking Cure (itself based on John Kerr's book A Most Dangerous Method) to Cronenberg's meticulously reconstructed Zurich and Vienna.

Fassbender and Mortensen embody all the entitlements of their influence, each doing smart work against the other's buttoned-down, tobacco-huffing academe. But they can only stand back as Knightley takes over, Jung's admitted "catalyst" who sparks everything from revolutionary advancements on his "talking cure" (which is basically just him sitting behind Spielrein as she juts, jolts and contorts the contents of her soul upon admittance to his university's hysteria clinic) to eye-popping, bodice-ripping, ass-whipping kink. "It's a lot of acting -- maybe not good acting -- but it sure gets the point across," my colleague Stephanie Zacharek wrote following Method's Venice Film Festival premiere. Indeed, it's insufferable in the early going, which also -- not coincidentally, for the filmmaker whose canon is synonymous with the phrase "body-horror" -- happen to be Cronenberg's most visually adventurous span, experimenting with depth of field in rich, deep slate- and molasses-hued interiors.

But one thing at a time. Why so... I don't know, hysterical?

"Unbeknownst to me, Keira went to Christopher for advice, and that screwed it all up," Cronenberg joked, coaxing a laugh from the packed house at the Walter Reade Theater. "It took me ages to undo the damage that did. But he did give her a stack of book to read, as did I, in fact.

"Beyond that," the director continued. "We began of course with the first scenes, which were the hysteria scenes. Hysteria was a disease that seems to have disappeared; it seems to have been a product of that era and the repression of women that was part of that culture. In fact, the word 'hysteria' comes the Greek word that means 'uterus,' and at times they would actually remove the uterus of a hysterical woman thinking that would cure her. That gives you a bit of the context. However extreme it might seem at the beginning is actually very subdued compared to what Sabina Spielrein would have presented to Jung. In fact, Christopher has mentioned that he's actually seen the notes that Jung wrote upon her admission detailing her symptoms. So we knew what the symptoms of her particular hysteria were, and then there's actually filmed footage of hysterical patients at the turn of the century, and a lot of photos of it [from] Dr. [Jean-Martin] Charcot, who was a big influence on Freud and specialized in hysteria. It was all these strange paralyses and hysterical laughters and deforming of the body and twisting and tormenting your physical parts... All of these are documented.

"So for me, basically, it was to decide how high you could pitch that," Cronenberg said. "It's very difficult to watch; it makes you feel very uncomfortable, as it would. But I have to deliver the disease to you, the audience, so you would understand why she was completely disabled. She was dysfunctional, and that's why she was brought to this institute -- because she couldn't function. So we had to show how extreme it was, and I thought it should really be centered around her mouth. Because she is being asked by Jung -- it is called 'the talking cure' -- to say unspeakable things about herself, about grief, about her sexuality, about her masochism and all that. Masturbation -- things that you were not supposed to speak about. So the idea that she should be trying to speak -- the words try to come out, but another part of her tries to prevent those words from coming out, to deform them so that they're not understandable. That's how we did that, and so on. Gradually, she loses the hysteria and becomes more and more confident under Jung's tutelage and has her affair, so you can see the evolution of the character."

Fair enough. Like everything, it's a matter of taste, and Knightley suited Cronenberg's so exquisitely that Method actually used less production time than it needed. "By the time we got to the set, Keira was there," he said. "It was fantastic. We did two takes, and done."

"It was quite incredible," Fassbender added. "I'd just add to that how we were, what? Four days ahead by week two?"

"Well, actually," Cronenberg replied, "after three days, we were five days ahead. Which seems impossible, but part of it was that I had boarded the schedule taking into account how difficult it might be to develop Keira's performance. I had never worked with her before, and this was very difficult stuff, and it was terrain that sort of was new to her. And she was just so good, and so right on, that we were finished in no time."

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  • Ed says:

    What a petty and ignorant conclusion.
    From Cronenberg's comments it's abundantly clear that Knightley gave him exactly what he was looking for.
    If you don't like it that's fair enough. But your complaint should then be with him and if you feel the need to blame or belittle anyone that that's the target you need to be aiming for. It's an actor's job to fulfill the director's vision after all.

  • Morgo says:

    yeah, he said very specifically that that the actor gave him what he wanted, to the extent where the production went well ahead of schedule.

  • Yes, I know, I was there. Point the finger at Cronenberg, then. It's comical overacting, whoever's responsible.

  • stwsr says:

    Keira Knightley was the absolute most horrid thing about this movie. Honestly, her exaggerated performance and presence made me dislike the movie intensely.

  • Ali says:

    You and your colleague SZ should stick with simple movies like the Blind Side. It seems like DC's sensibility is too complicated for you two.

  • Danielle says:

    So DC tells you, before the movie, that Keira is under-doing hysterical (as they saw in actual footage and pictures)... yet you, who probably has never seen a real hysteric, think it's over-acting? Yeah, that makes sense.
    Mental patients can be very alienating and scary, there's no such thing as "overdoing" it for them.