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New Cronenberg Film Probes the Birth of Psychoanalysis

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Director David Cronenberg (left) and Viggo Mortensen on set. (Photo by Liam Daniel, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics).
Director David Cronenberg describes his ambitious and audacious new film, A Dangerous Method, about the birth of psychoanalysis in the early part of the 20th century, as an “intellectual action movie.”  The real-life story revolves around the complex personal interaction of psychiatry’s pioneering practitioners, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, played by Vigo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender. The third main character, Keira Knightley as Sabina Spielrein, a deeply-troubled Russian woman who is treated by Jung and then Freud, and is involved in a fetishistic sexual relationship with the former.

“I sought to make an elegant film that trades on emotional horror, but loses none of its power to seduce,” says Cronenberg, known for making brainy horror movies like Videodrome, The Fly and Dead Ringer and, more recently, such provocative films as The History of Violence and Eastern Promises . In A Dangerous Method, “I was stimulated by offbeat and intimate details that illuminate the three leads themselves, and that give a sense of what it must have been like to be at once trapped and liberated by their cerebral and physical bonds,” he adds.

The film released by Sony Pictures Classics debuted last week in Los Angeles and New York to positive reviews and success at the box office. (Also last week the auteur director received a lifetime achievement honor from the Gotham Awards).

For his production team on A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg relied on tried-and-true collaborators who had worked with the director on many of his previous films. They included director of photography Peter Suschitzky; editor Ronald Sanders; production designer James McAteer;  costume designer Denise Cronenberg (the director’s sister); Stephan Dupuis who designed the hair and make-up, and composer Howard Shore.

Cronenberg’s challenge was to take a highly intellectual subject and make it cinematically interesting. The film  is after all based on a stage play, “The Talking Cure,” written by Christopher Hampton who also did the screenplay, “so there is going to be a lot of talk,” says the director. “But I’ve never thought conversation was just for the theatre as opposed to the cinema. Amazing faces saying amazing things are the essence of movies.”

Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung and Keira Knightley as Sabina Spielrein (Photo by Liam Daniel, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics).
Not that there aren’t numerous visual felicities as well. Most impressive is the film’s specificity in recreating the period down to small details in the coordinated production design, costumes and the hair and make-up.  “When you deliver that era, it’s not in the dialogue per se but in all those details,” notes the director. The confines of the play are expanded as well, with scenes such as Jung taking Sabina out for an idyllic trip on a sailboat boat that his wealthy wife had given him as a gift.

Cronenberg says that he wasn’t contriving to simply open up the play to make it more scenic, but taking visual cues from what was already in Hampton’s play. It in turn originated 10 years ago as a screenplay that Julia Roberts had expressed an interest in.  “It was a movie squished into a play that we unsquished,” he says.

The shoot was eight weeks and filming took place in Cologne, where most of the interiors were shot at MMC Studios, and on location in and around the Bodensee (Lake Constance) in southern Germany and in Vienna.  McAteer and his department used reference photos for the precise set designs, highlighted by Freud’s famous study which was reproduced down to the last iota. The production was also loaned Freud’s original study chair, which he designed himself.

The three-day shoot in Vienna was used to film the exterior entryway and staircase to Freud’s home; the city’s formal Belvedere Gardens; and inside the Café Sperl, one of the last of Vienna’s traditional coffee houses where Freud and Jung retire during their first meeting. “No matter how much money we had, we could never have recreated the authenticity of this café, with its tobacco-smoke-stained walls and original furniture,” says Cronenberg.  (The film cost $20 million to make).

Outdoor settings in and around the picturesque Bodensee, in southern Germany, substituted for Lake Zurich, near where Jung lived, because the latter has become too built up.  One of the biggest challenges was to recreate his original villa. The art department built a replica of Jung’s house next to an unspoiled garden. CGI was used to create the roof and other details during postproduction.

A Dangerous Method is the ninth film Suschitzky has lensed for Cronenberg. Over more than 20 years of collaboration the two have worked out a unique modus operandi. “We only prepare up to a certain point, after that it’s spontaneous and intuitive,” says the director. Each morning of a shoot starts by blocking out the actors for the day’s scenes, which also in effect serve as the only rehearsal. “I want the dialogue to feel fresh when I hear it for the first time,” he notes.

Michael Fassbender (left) as Carl Jung and Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud. (Photo by Liam Daniel, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics).
The actors depart to get in costume and have makeup applied, which is when the director does a rehearsal with the crew. “Only then do Peter and I decide how we’re going to do the lighting, what lenses we’re going to use, where the camera will be positioned and whether the camera is going to move or not,” he says. “In the end we’re more visceral than conceptual.”

There is little camera movement in the film that isn’t essential.  Schusitzky often relies on artful framing to keep the screen image cinematically interesting, which works especially well in the many scenes that involve intense conversations between the main characters.

Cronenberg usually does only one or two takes. That was the case when Keira Knightley makes her first appearance in the film, playing a grotesquely hysterical, and out-of-control Spielrein where she is on camera at one point for nearly two minutes without a cut. “We were all in awe of her,” says the director. “I had scheduled several days for those scenes, not knowing how difficult they would be for Keira, but all it took was two takes.”

The director is known for editing a film in his head while he’s shooting, a technique that leads to expedited results during the actual edit phase. Working nimbly with Sanders, his editor with whom he’s collaborated on 19 films over a 35-year period, Cronenberg boasts that after an initial assembly it took him only seven days to complete the director’s cut on A Dangerous Method.

Denise Cronenberg did extensive research on the clothing worn in middle Europe in the early 20th century – proper frock coats for men and doll-like dresses for women were the norm. As a resource she utilized Cosprop – a London costume house that is famous for its period clothing. “They had a lot of 100-year-old costumes that were appropriate but we couldn’t use them because they were too fragile,” notes the director. “She could, however, see what the textures and the materials were and they served as templates for exact replicas with incredible attention to detail.”

Makeup and hair designer Stephan Dupuis, who won an Oscar for his work on Cronenberg’s The Fly (shared with Chris Walas), applied subtle touches to  make the actors resemble their real life personas.   As Freud in his mid-’50s, Mortensen was given an artificial nose that was “so convincing you couldn’t tell it wasn’t real even in full sunlight. That’s the ultimate test of good makeup,” says Croneberg.

Opera composer Richard Wagner’s music figures both as a subtext in the plot of A Dangerous Method and in Howard Shore’s soundtrack. Much of Shore’s score for the film is a reweaving of the “Siegfried Idyll,” a suite Richard Wagner composed for his wife’s  birthday based on themes from Siegfried, the third opera in the Ring cycle.

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