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.
You’ve now done three films in a row with Viggo, which is a relatively long actor collaboration for you. What is about Viggo that works so well with you?
We’ve become close friends, and that’s interesting, because I don’t have too many actors who are actual friends — who I would go out to eat with, and would want to see, even if we weren’t talking about a particular movie. And that’s just happened by accident. We seem to mesh in an interesting way and we have great affection for each other. On the other hand, you don’t do an actor a favor by miscasting him — so he’s not in Cosmopolis. But on the other hand — yet again, on the other hand — I feel that I have some insights into him that maybe he doesn’t have, because of our closeness. He didn’t think he was right for Freud. He turned me down at first, but eventually I convinced him by pointing out the kind of Freud that we were creating.
Which was Freud at the age of 50, not at the age of 80. Not the stern, grandfatherly Freud, but the Freud who was described by Stefan Zweig in his book World of Yesterday as being masculine, handsome, charming, witty, funny… you know, and when you start to think of Freud that way, at the height of his powers, then suddenly Viggo’s not such strange casting — as it proves, I think, in the movie. We’re showing a Freud that is not normally thought of, or depicted.
And then he really got into it.
Well the thing is — and this is a thing I knew about Viggo — once he commits, he’s committed. He’s incredibly loyal to the project, to the character, to the movie. Once he committed there was never any going back; it was full on, “Let’s do research of the Viggo kind” — which is very deep, to say the least. He’d send 25 emails of Freud’s cigars, you know, with pictures going back and forth: “What kind were they?” “How many did he smoke a day?” “What shape were they?” “What strength?” “Would he have ever varied the kind during the course of the day, or did he always smoke the same kind?” “Could he afford them?” “Were they expensive?” You know, it went on and on and on.
It really is a great pipe and cigar movie — sometimes comically so, with all that teeth clacking and puffing — which obviously comes from that research.
Well this is the thing, I mean, not only was it an era of smoking, but Freud smoked 22 cigars a day. He never was without a cigar. Of course, it gave him cancer of the jaw, but even then — he had to smoke. He tried to stop smoking for week; he said, “I could not work. I could not think.” In German, the word for “food” is lebensmittel, meaning “life stuff,” and he said that cigars were his arbeitsmittel — meaning “work stuff.” He couldn’t work without them, and he preferred, almost suicidally, to continue smoking cigars rather than to not think and work. So that was his true addiction. These are intriguing things that we learn when we do the research. You understand that every scene in the movie, except one, he will have a cigar. That is accurate. So in this case it’s not — and I know what you mean — “let’s give him glasses and a pipe and that’ll mean he’s intellectual,” no, in this case it was actually, physically accurate. And the same for Jung.
There’s a line in the film that Freud speaks as they arrive in America — “Do they know we’re bringing them the plague?” — as though psychiatry was some kind of virus being introduced.
Well he felt that it would alter American society. He felt that. His view of American was the view of many Europeans, which was that it was very naïve — psychologically very naïve, sexually very naïve, very innocent and not sophisticated — and they were bringing them something that the old world had developed, along these lines that would really shake them up, that would disturb them. And it certainly did.
Keira initially seems like an odd choice for the Sabina role. I actually found her first scene very uncomfortable to watch — not in a bad way, but just… unnerving.
Mmm-hmmm. Well, it was supposed to be.
It was almost like watching a Rick Baker transformation, the way she was contorting. How did you two achieve that performance?
Right. Cheap special effects. [Laughs] Well, it’s a very accurate portrayal of hysteria. The French psychiatrist Charcot, who was a big influence on Freud, specialized in hysteria; that was a disease at the time, which has sort of disappeared because we feel that it was generated by the sexual repression — or the general repression — of women at the time. It was considered to be a disease of women. The word “hysteria” comes from the Greek word for uterus. They would actually remove the uteruses of women to cure them, which is kind of hideous when you look at it. Photos by Charcot and footage of sufferers of hysteria are totally unwatchable and very uncomfortable, almost comedic at times — women distorting themselves, and mutilating themselves. And we had the 50-page analysis of Sabina, done by Jung, describing her symptoms — her face ravaged by tics, for example. So we talked about it, and I said “I think this is all about the mouth and the jaw — this is the Talking Cure.” For the first time this women has been asked to speak these unspeakable words about being sexually aroused by her father’s beating her, and so on. For a woman of that time, that class, that was unthinkable and unspeakable. She desperately wants to say these words but she cannot say these words; she’s afraid to say these words so she’s trying to bring them back. She’s trying to deform the words so that they can’t be understood. That was the basis of the performance. And, as I say, very accurate. These women were acting out. They were acting out their repression, intellectually and sexually, and they would go into the most grotesque things. Incredibly uncomfortable to look at.
I think we’re out of time.
A Dangerous Method opens in theaters this week.