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"You're Hung Up About A Lot In Britain" - David Cronenberg Interviewed
Stephen Dalton , January 27th, 2012 11:30

Canadian veteran David Cronenberg's new film portrays the intimate lives of three architects of psychoanalysis. Stephen Dalton is on the couch

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David Cronenberg has a virus. Before our meeting in a plush Vienna hotel, I am warned not to shake hands with the cult Canadian filmmaker. So it has finally happened: after four decades of forensically dissecting psychosexual sickness, pathological perversity and flesh-squirming parasites on the big screen, Cronenberg has become the disease. Well, OK, not quite. The professorial 68-year-old director has actually flown into the Viennale film festival from his native Toronto with a bunged-up cold and a bad case of the sniffles. The horror, the horror.

We meet in Vienna, city of Sigmund Freud, to discuss Cronenberg's handsome period drama A Dangerous Method, which unravels the bizarre love triangle between three towering pioneers in the early days of psychoanalysis: Freud, Carl Jung and Sabina Spielrein, an aristocratic Russian Jew who went from being Jung's patient to his lover and mistress. Serial Cronenberg collaborator Viggo Mortensen plays Freud, but most of the on-screen heat belongs to Michael Fassbender as Jung and Keira Knightley as Spielrein.

Despite dealing with core Cronenberg themes like psychosis and sexual obsession, A Dangerous Method feels oddly restrained alongside the director's canon of dystopian psycho-thrillers and cerebral sci-fi shockers. Launching his career with the queasy 'body horror' of Shivers and Rabid in the 1970s, he infected the mainstream the following decade with his hugely successful reboot of The Fly and creepy surgical thriller Dead Ringers, yet still managed to trigger one of the biggest scandals in British cinema history with his chilly adaptation of JG Ballard's cult novel Crash in 1996.

Although polished and poised and beautifully photographed in painterly pastel shades, A Dangerous Method is essentially a chamber piece based on a 2002 play by Christopher Hampton, The Talking Cure, itself adapted from John Kerr's 1993 non-fiction book A Most Dangerous Method. There is some brief S&M sex, but otherwise Cronenberg resists the temptation to explore the visceral extremes of Spielrein's condition, which included an obsession with shit and compulsive masturbation. Likewise Otto Gross, a dissolute free love anarchist who worked with both Freud and Jung before dying in poverty, only makes a frustratingly brief appearance in the form of the livewire French actor Vincent Cassel. There is crazed intensity here, but mostly below the surface.

A largely unsung professional influence on both Freud and Jung, Spielrein's dramatic life deserves a whole film of its own. Returning to post-revolution Russia after her affair with Jung, she suffered persecution under Stalin and an early death at the hands of Nazi invaders. Knightley's mannered depiction of her youthful madness, jutting out her jaw in jerky spasms, has been widely criticised by reviewers – but according to historical accounts, it is broadly accurate. Cronenberg is already on the defensive in our interview, convinced British critics reserve an irrational contempt for the young starlet, just as it was London tabloid moralists who led the frenzied moral panic over Crash. He may forgive, but Professor Weird never forgets.

The session has begun. Doctor Cronenberg will see you now... 

Freud and Jung became very close and intimate: is A Dangerous Method a kind of love story between two heterosexuals?

David Cronenberg: It is a triangle, definitely. There was definitely love between Freud and Jung. They were creating a kind of modern relationship that hadn't quite existed before - because they were two professional men, very ambitious, at the top of their profession, very respected. And yet if you read their letters they were incredibly intimate with each other, revealing the most incredible things about their erotic dreams, their bodies, their sexual lives. Which was kind of unprecedented, and in a way that's maybe why some of the movie seems modern even though it takes place 100 years ago, because they were establishing what modernity was.

Did you research the film by looking at previous screen depictions of Freud, like John Huston's 1962 biopic The Secret Passion?

DC: No, but I did watch the BBC Freud series [1984's David Suchet vehicle] and enjoyed that. I saw the John Huston film when it came out, but it's not considered a serious portrait of Freud. Huston famously didn't believe anything about Freud or psychoanalysis – or have any respect for him, or understanding of him! So it was weird for him to be making this movie. But it was certainly interesting casting, Montgomery Clift. There have been many portrayals of Freud, like Alan Arkin in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, but they are normally pop versions of Freud – except the BBC thing, that was an attempt to really portray him. But this movie is about a very specific moment in Freud's life that is not often dealt with, at the age of 50. Most people think of Freud as this grandfatherly 80-year-old, a very stern kind of guy, but when you read writers from Vienna at this time they say he was handsome, charismatic, masculine, charming and witty. Things you don't think about Freud. So I felt that to cast Viggo would subvert the clichés.

This is your third time working with Viggo. Is this another of those heterosexual male love stories, like Freud and Jung?

DC: Well we do have a love affair, Viggo and I, definitely.

Is this all related to unresolved feelings about your father?

DC: We are each other's father – and brother.

Why is Freud still an interesting dramatic subject a century later?

DC: Because he is one of the people who established our understanding of what a human being is. It's invisible now for most people, and you don't have to study for it, or know anything about him. But you will still talk about doing something ‘unconsciously', or someone who has a ‘big ego'. This all comes from Freud. The idea that we can have unconscious thinking was really revolutionary, but it's accepted now. And with magnetic brain imaging, MRI, they have shown that Freud was absolutely 100 per cent right. It's like with Einstein: until we sent somebody into space we couldn't prove that his theories about time and space were correct, and now we see that they were. It's the same with Freud.

Has Freud been an influence on your whole film career?

DC: Sure. Actually the first short film I ever made was called Transfer, seven minutes long. It was about a psychiatrist and his patient, so obviously that relationship was something that interested me. It was a new relationship that had never existed before, very intimate with a clinical distance, but complicated by the idea of transference – the projecting of other people in your life onto the analyst. And at the time this movie takes place, the boundaries of that relationship were still being established. For example, it's not so strange for Otto Gross to say: Why not have sexual relations with your patient? Maybe that's a good thing, maybe that's therapy. So although by the standards of now, we would say it was unethical of Jung to have an affair with his patient, at that time people were saying maybe it's not a bad thing. They were feeling their way towards how this thing should work.

Sabina Spielrein is an important unsung figure in the history of psychoanalysis, but the film barely touches on her role. Why?

DC: I could have come to this movie with a desire to elevate Sabina as a feminist martyr, and really push the politics of that, but I feel that even on that level it's more effective just to let the story be what it is. You can see that aspect of it but it's not like a big political construction

The style of A Dangerous Method seems unusually cool and composed, especially compared to your early body horror thrillers...

DC: I don't really think so. You have to understand that, when I'm making a movie, my other movies are totally irrelevant to me. It's as if they don't exist. To a critic it's different, you're looking at the whole body of work. For me it's a completely different perspective. Once I decide I'm doing a project I only look at this project. It was also the style of Christopher's writing, and the desire to evoke Vienna in the early 1900s –very controlled, very formal. So to do some wild hand-held thing, what's the point? Then you are imposing a style arbitrarily on the material. You should feel the work. For example, even as long ago as The Dead Zone [1983] people were saying, ‘Oh, this is very restrained for you', but that was the nature of the movie! That's the project! I think this only comes from people who were very affected by my early horror movies. Every time I do a movie they think it's a big departure. M. Butterfly was a big departure. Even A History of Violence; it was violent but not so-called ‘body horror'. I've never used the expression myself. I don't really know what it means actually... ha!

Lots of film directors, like Woody Allen and Bernardo Bertolucci, have used their own experiences in Freudian analysis as creative inspiration. Do you think psychiatry has been useful to cinema?

DC: It depends on how you use it. I'm sure Bernardo would say it has. Think about Salvador Dali and the Surrealists, another art movement that took dream interpretation to heart and found it incredibly valuable. You wouldn't have had the Surrealists without Freud. I think anybody growing up in the 20th century was affected by Freud, whether you know it or not. For example, I don't apply psychoanalytic methods as Bernardo does to analysing characters, but nonetheless my understanding of how things might work with people is definitely affected by Freudian thought. Even if Freudian analysis disappeared completely, the influence of Freud would not disappear

Have you ever used your own dreams as inspiration for films?

DC: Only one - it was my first movie, Shivers. That was based on a dream I had of lying in bed with a women, and she opens her mouth and a spider comes out. I couldn't really do a spider, I had to do a parasite because the eight legs were too difficult to do. And then of course that whole idea was stolen by Alien, because really I did Shivers first. A parasite that bursts its way out of your body, jumps on your face, goes down your throat - that was all in Shivers. That was the only direct inspiration from a dream in my movies, but it could happen again

Freud smokes constantly in A Dangerous Method, almost as if he is orally fixated...

DC: Well he did suffer for it, he got cancer of the jaw. He smoked 22 cigars a day, so that why there's only one scene in the movie where he's not smoking, at dinner.

Ah yes, but in this case, is a cigar just a cigar?

DC: No it's actually a carcinogenic device, as it turns out.

This is your third collaboration with legendary British producer Jeremy Thomas, after Naked Lunch and Crash. Why work with independent producers and not a big studio?

DC: In Hollywood this is the worst kind of movie you can possibly make. It's a costume drama; everybody is rather intelligent, they talk a lot, they speak big words. It's historical, nobody is murdered in the movie, there is no violence - other than intellectual violence, shall we say. It's really not a very attractive proposition for a Hollywood studio. It needs an independent producer – and Jeremy is absolutely one of the top producers in independent cinema.

Looking back, how do you feel about the scandal around Crash now? Be honest, on one level did you secretly enjoy causing shock and disgust?

DC: No, I don't have that. I'd be happier if people just said: ‘Oh I love your movie!' I didn't enjoy the scandal, and I was very surprised by it. After all, it was a 20-year-old novel by JG Ballard, it was well established, everybody knew about it. And frankly it was mostly a scandal in the UK. As you know, it was just a weird English reaction.

Maybe we need more Freudian analysis? Do you think Brits are too hung up about sex?

DC: Oh, you're hung up about a lot of things in Britain, I think. Also there's a lot of anger in England, and has been for quite some years. When I walk down the streets of London, that's what I feel: a lot of anger and rage that has no way to express itself. It's unfocused, and I think therefore the tabloids exploit that by giving it a focus – it's an outrage a week, at least, if not daily. I felt we just got caught up in that. Crash is still banned in Westminster! That means, technically, anyone who projects it there could be arrested... Do you want to take that chance? It's kind of an interesting weirdness. But I think that's a particularly English phenomenon, it did very well in Canada and some other countries. That's very interesting about film. If your film is distributed in many countries you do get to see different reactions, and you do realise it's not specifically your film so much as the culture your film appears in.

British critics have been quite hard on Keira Knightley's performance in A Dangerous Method...

DC: It's the same thing. The Brits have this thing about Keira which is incomprehensible to people in other countries. She's a lovely woman, incredibly professional, she's had success since she was young and she's great in this movie. What's the problem? She too pretty and too good. Somehow that seems to be an affront.

Her class background probably comes into it too.

DC: Class absolutely come into it. Class comes into everything in England – and it did in Crash too. As an outsider, I'm a colonial. We feel we've left that behind. We don't have that kind of class thing that England still suffers from it. It's pretty fascinating... but I'd rather not live it.

A Dangerous Method opens on February 10 in the UK.