All the intrigue but none of the sex -- or not much of it, at any rate.
That's David Cronenberg's idea of a ménage à trois in A Dangerous Method, opening Friday, a film that deliberately plays against the kinky physicality often found in his work.
In casting Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender as psychiatric pioneers Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, along with Keira Knightley as Sabina Spielrein, their complicated third party, Cronenberg wanted to stay true to history.
He also wanted to explore the extremes of the mind, rather than the body. Despite what the poster and the trailer suggest, this isn't a movie for voyeurs.
"I call it an intellectual ménage à trois," Cronenberg says, in an interview during TIFF last fall, where A Dangerous Method had its North American premiere.
"But, certainly, there was love between Freud and Jung -- not sex but definitely love -- so it depends on what you mean by 'ménage'. Their letters to each other are extraordinary; they're intimate beyond belief."
"There was also a lot of highbrow humour," adds Mortensen in a separate interview.
"Freud liked George Bernard Shaw and other humorists of that era," Mortensen says. "He liked that really clever wordplay, sometimes verging on the absurd, which was the way humorists got around the really strict censorship in the 19th century. You can see that in his writing."
Cronenberg and Mortensen have forged a close bond, having worked together now in three movies -- Eastern Promises and A History of Violence were the others.
Even when talking in separate rooms, they sound like they're sitting side-by-side:
You must be getting tired by now of people saying A Dangerous Method isn't "Cronenbergian" enough. Does it bother you being judged as an adjective?
Cronenberg: No, no! The adjective I would like to have is "good" -- as in "good director"! That would be enough for me. I don't need to an adjective -- let's put it that way.
I mean, I can step back as an analyst and show you exactly why this is a Cronenberg film, given people's sort of clichéd ideas about what I do. But, really, my feeling is I give the movie what it wants. Each project, I don't think about my other movies as if I hadn't made them before. And, certainly, I can't possibly think about what people's expectations might be. You would paralyze yourself completely if you did that.
Mortensen adds: People like to compartmentalize and categorize, understandably, and I've read where they've called this David's "classic" period, whatever the hell that means.
It's crazy, and hopefully this will change it. I don't think he's like other veteran directors. I don't think he's making allowances trying to appeal to more people or trying to win an award. I don't think he's softening his style or his approach. He's just going where his nose takes him. He's like the eternal beginner, which is the best possible way to be as a person and as an artist.
As a filmmaker, you could have taken liberties with known facts and made this a highly sexualized movie. You didn't do that. Would it have betrayed history to do so?
Cronenberg: I think so. I talked to Andreas Jung, Jung's grandson, and he said Sabina was a friend of the family and he certainly didn't have an affair with her. You'll find people who deny they even had sex at all. And then, given the tenor of the times, the project was not that.
Let's put it that way. Certainly, it's very accepted -- Sabina or not -- that he did have a mistress for 40 years after that with Toni Wolff and that he and Toni Wolff had sex in a stone house that he built with his own hands that his wife never went to. That was only for him and his mistress, it had runic symbols on the ceilings and it was a sort of ritualistic sex thing they did there, but we don't know for sure! But that was after Sabina. So I think we were pushing it just to suggest that (Jung and Spielrein) had S&M sex.
Mortensen adds: A ménage à trois didn't happen, historically, and I don't know if the marketing has in any way led people to believe that. Maybe just because you see three heads, you make the assumption of that -- and it is a Cronenberg film!
You originally had Christoph Waltz and Christian Bale cast as Freud and Jung. How frustrating was it to lose both of them?
Cronenberg: Well, Christian Bale left quite a long time earlier and it's understandable because it takes so long, sometimes, to put an independent film together that the people who agreed to do it two years ago, now they're someplace else in their lives, they don't want to do it, or they want more money, or they think they've done something like it just recently. You never know. So that was okay.
Christoph Waltz was more difficult because he pursued us. I mean, he really pursued me: he told me how his grandfather had been a pupil of Freud's, and so it was a bit of a shock when he said, "I'm going to do Water for Elephants." He was very apologetic and he said, "It's my insecurities" and so on.
You had to beef up to play Freud. How many pounds did you gain?
Mortensen: I don't know, but quite a few. I just wanted to be more robust. Freud smoked twenty-something cigars a day and thought he could probably do that forever. Different times -- I suppose they didn't realize how dangerous it was. But he kept smoking the cigars even when he was deathly ill. And he liked wine. Jung was a teetotaller and the son of a Christian pastor in Switzerland. They were very different personalities. It was nice to be able to show that.