David Cronenberg – who astoundingly, will turn 70 next year – has consistently risen to the challenge of creating a unique kind of cinema in the audacious stories he tells. It doesn't hurt that actors love to work with him and that he is such a pleasant, affable person to be around.
I'll never forget meeting James Spader in Cannes in 1996 for Cronenberg's controversial film, Crash, and hearing the actor say that having sex in car crashes was made to seem like a normal occurrence by the director, while Jeremy Irons has admitted that playing twin gynaecologists in 1988's Dead Ringers was a surprisingly calm experience as well. Another intelligent eccentric, Viggo Mortensen, has now made three movies with the retiring Canadian, A History of Violence (2005), Eastern Promises (2007) and A Dangerous Method (2011), so that probably no actor is more ready and willing for the mandatory Cronenberg transformation.
A Dangerous Method may dwell on Cronenbergian themes of sex and sanity, yet its historical turn-of-the-century setting is not something we might immediately associate with the Cronenberg canon. The film draws on the real life story of Sabine Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a troubled Russian woman who remains unrecognised yet was at the forefront of the birth of psychoanalysis following her own treatments from the Swiss-German Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), who became her lover, and the Austrian Sigmund Freud (a bearded Mortensen wearing brown contacts and a fake nose). What fascinated Cronenberg about making the movie, above all, is the era in which this occurred.
“It was Europe before the First World War and it was a time when, especially in Vienna (as part of the Austro/Hungarian Empire) they felt they had reached the apex of civilisation,” he explains. “Everybody had money, it was prosperous and everybody felt they knew their place in society. Everybody believed in progress, that their human soul was progressing and that every problem could be solved by intellect and rationality.
"Then Freud comes along and says, 'No, this is wrong, this is a very thin layer on top of something very dangerous, something very volcanic. The human being is not what you think it is and underneath, these things that we are repressing, these things that we are not talking about, will erupt in great brutality and violence and destructiveness. Of course, then the First World War showed that this illusion of a wonderful, civilised Europe was an illusion. And we have realised that many times since.”
Cronenberg commends Christopher Hampton's screenplay for condensing the events and characters into 100 minutes of screen time, and for deftly showing the divergent views between Freud and Jung. Interestingly, Cronenberg admits to gravitating towards Freud who, like himself, was an atheist and a Jew.
“Nobody wanted to listen to Freud,” explains the director and teacher, who grew up in a middle-class progressive Jewish family in Toronto. “They felt that he was a destructive force. He was also talking about incest, he was talking about the sexual abuse of children by their parents and their uncles and cousins, and you can imagine that in 1890 and 1910 in Vienna nobody wanted to hear these things.”
It didn't help that Freud was Jewish, notes Cronenberg, who goes into great detail about the status of Jews in Vienna at the time, citing that even if the city was more tolerant than other places, Jews weren't allowed to be in the military or the government and they couldn't teach.
“Freud wanted Jung to be the leader of his movement because he felt that since he was a Christian and he was a very attractive man, that would prevent psychoanalysis from being dismissed as a Jewish science, which was one way of saying it is mystical and worthless. As you can see in the movie, at a certain point Jung was naïve and really didn't understand why Freud was worried about that. He didn't see it as a problem but, of course, it was a problem. Then, of course, the ultimate apex of that was when Freud had to flee from his home in Vienna to England to avoid being sent to a camp, as I think some of his sisters were.”
Spielrein was also Jewish. She managed to survive and live with her demons and went on to pioneer the field of child psychology – only to be killed along with her two children in the Holocaust. Freud, an avid smoker, died in 1939 from cancer at the age of 85, and Jung survived his own depression and a six-year nervous breakdown (following the break-up with Freud) to live and work until his death in 1969, aged 85. Interestingly, his belief that spiritualism could help cure chronic alcoholism helped influence the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous.
“Jung was a fascinating man,” notes Cronenberg. “He had a father and six uncles who were all protestant ministers. He mocked his father; he found his father and his religion pathetic, but he ended up becoming a pastor himself. Basically, I think, where Jung went is exactly where Freud said he would go and that is into mysticism and religion. At the same time, Jung's version of religion was almost pre-Christian. He even became very interested in alchemy, if you can imagine medieval chemistry, which was very bound up with Christian mythology and imagery. He lived a long life and if you look at him in interviews on YouTube he is lovely. He is charming, sweet, he speaks English very well and you can understand why people would find him a very comforting therapist to help them through an emotional or spiritual crisis. So I wouldn't demean what he was doing, it's just not my taste.”
It was no coincidence that Cronenberg, who in 1983 on the advent of a groundbreaking new technology brought us the body horror film, Videodrome, and then did a similarly corporal thing with video games in 1999's eXistenZ, was attracted to Hampton's focus on the age-old and near obsolete practice of letter writing in his screenplay. The reason Hampton was able to delve into such private psychosexual matters was because Jung, Spielrein and Freud had communicated it all by mail.
“It was the technology of the times,” explains Cronenberg. “There were five to eight mail deliveries every day in Vienna so you could write a letter in the morning and expect an answer by the afternoon. That was their internet.”
In the film, Cronenberg beautifully captures the strictures of the era through his use of pristine, brightly lit images and constraining clothing. “It was very repressive dress, he says. “The men wore very stiff high collars and the women wore corsets that pulled them in. Everything was stiff and formal and the image of women was very much like children. They dressed like little girls – very frilly but corseted – because a woman's sexuality was absolutely not acknowledged, which is another thing that Freud talked about that disturbed everybody.”
As if to completely confound us, Cronenberg has since completed Cosmopolis, which stars Robert Pattinson as a millionaire on a trek across Manhattan. The Twilight star replaced Colin Farrell (after he dropped out to make Total Recall) and surely hopes to show a new maturity as an actor, as Knightley has done in A Dangerous Method.
“Robert is a terrific actor; you will be surprised,” Cronenberg notes with an unusual twinkle in his eye. “It was just an interesting project. I have no rules. When [Portuguese producer] Paulo Branco brought me Don DeLillo's book of Cosmopolis in Toronto and asked if I would like to make it into a movie, I had never heard of the book, although I'd read books by DeLilo. I looked at it and in two days, I said yes. I wasn't looking for it but it came to me. I have no anticipation. I am interested in many things but it is not as though I have a list of things that I want to do. It's not like, 'Now I must do a western', 'Now I have to do a science fiction movie'. I don't think that way. I am interested in all kinds of things.”
A Dangerous Method is in cinemas March 29.