David Cronenberg is the first person to admit that his new film A Dangerous Method doesn't seem very, well, Cronenberg-like.
The movie, which opens Jan. 13, looks at the early years of Sigmund Freud (played by frequent collaborator Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). The two psychiatrists were at odds over their different approaches to the human mind, a debate that was made more fraught -- and sexual -- with the appearance of Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a real-life patient of Jung's, and later his mistress. Spielrein, who went on to become a famous psychiatrist in her own right, was a masochist who liked to be spanked.
The heart of the movie lies in the intellectual debate, a theme that seems removed from Cronenberg's long-time interest in the body, starting with early horror films Shivers and Rabid and extending into the more sophisticated metaphors of The Fly and Crash.
"It sounds like a strange project," Cronenberg said the morning after A Dangerous Method had its premiere at the Toronto film festival last fall. "People say this isn't a very Cronenberg-like movie, and I think it feels like one to me. What's the difference?"
He finds it in the approaches of the two men at the dawn of psychiatry at the turn of the last century.
"I think Freud insisted on the reality of the human body, in a time that was very Victorian and very repressive," the director said.
"Freud talked about penises and vaginas and anuses and excrement. He talked about child abuse and incest. It was very revolutionary at the time -- very disturbing and very disruptive -- what he was saying. But it all had to do with the human body as the focus."
But it was a more Jungian approach -- more to do with the mystical connections of coincidence -- that led him to A Dangerous Method in the first place.
It started when Ralph Fiennes was appearing in the Christopher Hampton play The Talking Cure, on which the film was based. Cronenberg was interested because Fiennes had starred in his film Spider, so he read the play.
"At that point, in retrospect anyway, it made me realize that I'd always wanted to do a movie about Freud and the birth of psychoanalysis," he said.
He was especially engaged by Hampton's approach. For one thing, the story included Spielrein, a mostly forgotten influence who turns out to be central to the field.
"To say I'd like to do a movie about Freud isn't really saying much because he had such a long and complex life with lots of people in it, so how do you do that?" Cronenberg said. "Suddenly here is this beautiful intellectual ménage à trois. And this startling new character Sabina who I'd never heard of. It had a beautiful structure, it was dramatic, distilled -- a manageable and accurate dramatic structure out of something chaotic and tumultuous and full of many, many characters -- quite brilliant."
It also gave him the chance to portray a Freud rarely seen in pictures: not the frail, thin, cancer-ridden old man of the popular imagination, but a vital and handsome man of 50 at the height of his powers. "Handsome and masculine, charismatic, witty, incisive, seductive. All these things. I thought we'd have to cast it in not the usual way that people cast Freud," the director explained.
It eventually fell to Mortensen, whose relationship with Cronenberg includes starring roles in Eastern Promises and A History of Violence. The men are also friends; indeed, later, over a cup of herbal tea that he brews in a pot that he carries, Mortensen said his research uncovered a Freud whose wit and eloquence reminded him of no one so much as Cronenberg. "In terms of irony and the conversational skills, I had them all in front of me every day."
Whatever the Freudian (or Jungian) implications of that, it results in a film that alternates between the perverse affair of Jung and Spielrein and scenes of intellectual debate between Jung and Freud. It's another aspect that feels different from his usual movies, but Cronenberg says watching two men in a room discussing issues is, in fact, very cinematic.
"Despite CG and alien invasions and stuff, the thing you see most onscreen is the human face," he said. "To me, that's cinema. And then it becomes a question of the dynamism and the lighting and the acting and all that stuff that is cinema and not theatre."
He disputes the idea that dialogue is innately theatrical; indeed, Hampton's play was originally written as a screenplay called Sabina that was to have starred Julia Roberts. When that fell through, it became a play on its way to the screen.
"To me, the most difficult thing as a director is two people in a room," Cronenberg said. "It always has been. It's not actually hard to shoot cars crashing. And I've done that, too. That to me is not so hard as really getting into the details of two people in a room. The way they move around the room. The significance of their moves. To me, that's pure cinema."