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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


  A Dangerous Method


Director David Cronenberg (2011)

By the end of David Cronenberg’s scandalous 1976 budget horror Shivers the entire cast has succumbed to a giant slug-like parasite that infects its host with an uncontrollable sexual desire, all the better to pass from human to human as they copulate. A sexually transmitted disease and a half.

As the credits roll a global orgy is being unleashed. The really disturbing thing, though, is that it leaves you wondering whether such a plight wouldn’t be so bad.

Thirty-five years later Cronenberg is still grappling with these subversive thoughts – and using strangely familiar imagery.

Finding a language to tell of the shameful upwelling of carnal urges she struggles to repress, Sabina Spielrein describes it as a mollusc crawling down her back. Or Shivers down her spine, perhaps.

Speilrein (Keira Knightley) has lately arrived, kicking and screaming, at a Swiss clinic where she is lucky enough to come under the care of a young and brilliant psychiatrist named Carl Jung. Jung (Michael Fassbender) has gleaned from the works of Sigmund Freud the possibility of a talking cure, which he tries out on his new patient.

As Jung probes the cause of her torment Speilrein wrestles with her demons, her contortions seeming to almost dislocate her jaw, as though she’s transforming into a werewolf. This is proper Cronenberg, and the early scenes are gripping as we speculate on what horrors can possibly be lurking in her unconscious.

Unfortunately, A Dangerous Method goes downhill from there. The desire that Speilrein is repressing, that’s causing all her woes, is that she enjoys being spanked, a fairly common peccadillo though no doubt not a subject for polite dinner conversation in Edwardian times.

Anyway, restoring this to consciousness means that she’s cured and, hey, Freud is right. So cured, in fact, that Speilrein becomes a successful pyschoanalyst herself. At this public level, the film is based on a true story, by the way, and contains some interesting debate between Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Jung, while Speilrein has her own take on it all.

Cronenberg doesn’t leave it there, of course, and speculates about an on-and-off affair between the unhappily married Jung and and his former charge which includes some mild S&M.

He’s encouraged in this by doctor-turned-patient Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel) who, straight off the set of Shivers, believes we should shag whoever we like, no rules. After trying this for a bit Jung feels guilty and resumes a faithful life.

It’s all so dull and predictable. And, curiously for a Cronenberg, this is a film without an unconscious. Past the opening scenes there are none of the shock surreal images we have come to expect.

It’s almost as if, in the process of addressing psychoanalysis, Cronenberg has performed a talking cure on himself. The ego is in charge, the unconscious repressed and those sexy slugs banished to the garden. More’s the pity.

February 21, 2012

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