The original mad men

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 March, 2012, 12:00am


Barely has David Cronenberg's publicist entered a lavish hotel suite off Vienna's Ringstrasse than she breaks the bad news: the Canadian filmmaker is not going to shake hands with anyone today.

It can't be arrogance: Cronenberg has long been known as a comparatively amiable conversationalist so why is the 69-year-old avoiding human contact? Is it hypochondria? Is he trying to avoid revealing his mental state through the firmness of his grip? Or could it be a snub similar to Sigmund Freud's refusal to shake hands with Sandor Ferenczi in September 1932? The slight traumatised Freud's estranged psychoanalytical associate, who died six months later reportedly still aggrieved.

It turns out to be something more mundane: what began as a mild case of the sniffles at home had turned into a full-blown cold when he arrived in Vienna for a screening of his latest film, A Dangerous Method, at the Austrian capital's annual international film festival, and he's not keen to spread it.

Still, it's difficult not to regard Cronenberg's quirks through a psychoanalytical prism, given that he's unveiling a film about the pioneers of that field in the city which propelled them to worldwide fame.

Set at the beginning of the 20th century, A Dangerous Method examines the troubled relationship between Freud and Carl Jung as they develop a treatment they call 'the talking cure' - an approach we now know as psychoanalysis.

The Freudian approach of reading the subconscious has remained controversial over the past century, and Cronenberg addresses this in the film when Freud (played by Viggo Mortensen) says to Jung (Michael Fassbender): 'In 100 years' time, our work will still be rejected.' Even Jung has qualms about Freud's concepts, when he asks whether the medical establishment's discomfort is caused by Freud's 'system of exclusive sexual interpretation of clinical material'.

The seeds of divergence are thus sown and the bond between the pair is fractured by the treatment administered to a Russian patient of Jung's, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), who is 'cured' of her hysteria and eventually becomes a psychologist in her own right.

'I think psychoanalysis continues to be very useful. Don't forget it branched out into cognitive behavioural therapy, which technically is not Freudian but would not have existed without Freud,' says Cronenberg.

He recalls reading an article about how popular Freud has become in China - as a middle class begins to emerge, they have more time, money and space to think of their psyche, family relationships and stuff. There are actually New York psychiatrists Skype-ing with Chinese patients in the middle of the night, he says.

'So Freud is still alive. There are, of course, fashions in medicine as there are in everything else - some things are hot and then they aren't. And you think of what Sabina was suffering - hysteria as a clinical category of disease doesn't exist anymore. But it was real then. It was a socially constructed disease.'

A Dangerous Method seems very different from Cronenberg's usual subject matter and nearly devoid of the 'Baron of Blood's' trademark visceral gore, apart from a small cut Spielrein inflicts on Jung's face. But it actually harks back to the director's first short, the seven-minute Transfer from 1966, which features an obsessive patient who is only able to establish a bond with his therapist.

The complicated consequences of the doctor-patient relationship are writ large in A Dangerous Method when Jung - encouraged by the nihilist psychoanalyst Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), who sees sex as just another device to be used in treatment - becomes physically involved with Spielrein. While Jung says the affair allows him 'to understand who I am', this transgression of clinical distance leads to the breakdown of his relationship with Freud.

'It was a new relationship that had never existed between people before,' says Cronenberg. 'At the time the movie takes place, the boundaries of that kind of relationship were still being established. For example, it wasn't strange [for a psychoanalyst] to say, 'Why not have a sexual affair with your patient? Maybe it's good therapy.' By today's standards, you'd say it was unethical for Jung to have an affair with his patient, but at that time it was, like, 'Maybe it's not a bad thing'. They are feeling their way into this new thing, and nobody knows how it should work.'

Cronenberg laughs when asked whether he brings his own id, ego or superego into making films - 'With everything I do' - but he does admit to once using a dream as the premise of a movie.

'It was my first movie, Shivers. It was based on a dream I had about lying in bed with a woman, and her mouth opens and a spider comes out,' he says, referring to the 1975 film about an urban population under attack from a creature that spreads from person to person through sex.

'Though I couldn't really do a spider because eight legs were too difficult, so I had to use a kind of a parasite. But the idea was stolen by Alien ... [the notion of] this parasite that bursts out of your body, jumps on your face, goes down your throat. That was all in Shivers.'

Cronenberg becomes less jovial, however, when reminded that some critics have pointed out A Dangerous Method is stylistically different and aesthetically restrained compared with his otherwise extreme oeuvre. 'If you read the play [The Talking Cure by Christopher Hampton, the source of the film], you will understand that when I'm making a movie, my other movies are totally irrelevant to me. It's as if they don't exist,' he says.

'Once I decide that I want to do a project, I'm only looking at that project. I'm saying, 'What does this movie want?' The style of Christopher's writing evokes the style of the era - early 1910s Vienna, very controlled, very formal. To do some wild handheld thing - what's the point?

'Even as long ago as The Dead Zone [his 1983 adaptation of the Stephen King novel], people were saying, 'It's very restrained for you'. But I said it's the nature of the movie. For people who have been affected by my early movies, they think M. Butterfly is a big departure, even A History of Violence, where there's no violence and no so-called 'body horror'. I have never used that expression myself. I don't really know what it means, actually.'

The term is used to refer to his films that feature grotesque transformations of the body: more notorious examples include the exploding head in Scanners, the appearance of an abdominal orifice in Videodrome, the merging of a man and an insect in The Fly, and the physical cavities (called 'bioports') used in a virtual-reality game in eXistenZ.

But in A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg provides a primer on how to interpret such corporeal anomalies: they are external manifestations of inner mental states, as shown at the start of the film when Spielrein's physical symptoms - most notably a disturbingly jutting jaw - are presented as outward signs of her anguish caused by years of abuse by her father.

Cronenberg included enough Freudian references in even his most gut-wrenching horror flicks to suggest there is potential for such interpretation in even the most genre-specific films: a character in 1977's Rabid is seen looking at Ernest Jones' seminal biography, The Life and Works of Sigmund; appearing on a talk show, James Woods' character in Videodrome tries to chat up fellow guest Niki (Debbie Harry), saying Freud would have a field day analysing her red dress. And then of course there's the psychiatrist as a cult leader in The Brood, liberation of the unconscious (Naked Lunch, eXistenZ), the repressed lust for the cultural and sexual 'other' (M. Butterfly) and the struggle against the father (Eastern Promises).

'I don't think anybody growing up in the 20th century wasn't affected by Freud, whether you know it or not,' he says. 'I don't apply psychoanalytical methods as Bernardo [Bertolucci] does in his analysing of his characters. Nonetheless, my understanding of how things might work with people is definitely affected by Freudian thought. Even if Freudian analysis has disappeared completely, his influence will not.'

The same could be said, perhaps, of Cronenberg's on-screen reflection of this diseased world - flu-inflicted or otherwise.

A Dangerous Method, Mar 31, 9.15pm, Hong Kong Cultural Centre as part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival, and on general release in May