With Cosmopolis – master of macabre David Cronenberg’s newest – out now, we thought we’d dive back into our February issue, where we spoke to the eXistenZ and Videodrome visionary about spanky period drama, A Dangerous Method.
Hollywood’s master of the weird has turned his attention inwards with A Dangerous Method – a dramatic biopic of psychoanalysts Freud and Jung. What better time to pick his brains?
With the passing of time, David Cronenberg has come more and more to resemble a character in one of his own movies. Laser surgery has corrected his eyesight, age has sharpened his features and whitened his hair, and now, more than he ever did in his 80s heyday, he looks like a man given to chilling thoughts and bizarre fantasies. The word heyday might seem harsh, but since his debut, Shivers, in 1975, he is one of a small pocket of filmmakers whose influence can be seen in the most mainstream Hollywood product today, even though the studios have no idea what to do with him, and his name alone is not enough to secure financing for even the smallest indie movies he makes.
Take, for example, Spider (2002), his sinister adaptation of Patrick McGrath’s gothic novel, which starred Ralph Fiennes and almost had to be abandoned when a significant chunk of its $10m budget fell out in the middle of shooting. A lesser director might have run back to his comfort zone (once known as “body horror”), to the exploding heads of Scanners (1981) and the visceral dementia of Videodrome (1983) and The Fly (1986), still his biggest box-office hit. The Canadian director, however, continued to plough his unique furrow, returning instead with a surprisingly commercial gangster film, A History Of Violence (2005), a tale of hitmen and bloody feuds that delivered high-adrenaline thrills while bubbling with the perverse motif of violence itself as a virulent infection.
He followed it with Eastern Promises (2007), another gangster movie with brutal action set-pieces, but the film that brings him back to London could not be more different. Called A Dangerous Method, and based on the play by Christopher Hampton, it tells the story of the freezing of relations between the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and his young protégé Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). But in particular, it details the mental disintegration of Jung, as his affair with a brilliant patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), unlocks his troubled libido.
Some have said A Dangerous Method is a departure for Cronenberg, but that’s only true of its period-film surface. Underneath, it is very much a Cronenberg movie, albeit of the stripped-down variety, in which the gory terrors of his late-70s films (Rabid, The Brood) are subtly internalised.
“I can agree with that,” he nods soberly, when we meet in a Soho hotel room. “I mean, as I say endlessly in interviews, when I’m making a movie I forget about the others, because they don’t really give me anything other than a sense of craft. But yes. Some people //have// been saying that, and I say to them, ‘No, it’s not really.’ And then I point out that my first film was a seven-minute short called Transfer that was about a psychiatrist and his patient. So it feels natural for me.”
Indeed, A Dangerous Method could even be seen as a prequel to the hallucinogenic Videodrome, in which James Wood’s amoral Max Renn falls victim to his own morbid curiosity.
“Well, sure, absolutely,” he muses. “After the fact, I’m willing to play, in terms of analysis and connections. But it’s not something that I ever thought could help me make this movie. The unconscious things drive you to make a particular film are something else. But just on the surface, Freud – what a fascinating character. And what an influential character. And what a wonderful moment – the birth of psychoanalysis – and what a significant moment in history, before world war one in Europe. All of those things, that’s really where the excitement was for me. The other stuff just takes care of itself. It’s just my sensibility, my intellect. And so the connections you might see are lovely, and not inaccurate, but they didn’t play a part in the making of the movie.”
What also seems very, shall we say “Cronenbergian” in the movie is Fassbender’s portrayal of Carl Jung. Like Max Renn in Videodrome or Seth Brundle in The Fly, Jung is about to cross a threshold in his psyche. With Freud as the fusty patriarch, always coming down on Jung’s ideas with a wave of his walking stick, it seems that the director quite approves of the underdog here. Does he?
“I think that’s your perception,” says Cronenberg. “Really. Because I feel much closer to Freud. I could never follow Jung, because Jung went into religiosity and mysticism – and a particular brand of Aryan mysticism. I could not remotely go there, as an atheist, for example. I feel much closer to Freud, and I think Freud had a much firmer grasp on real human truth. With his emphasis on the reality of the human body, for example. You can see how that would connect with my movie-making. But I’m glad that you can say that because I wanted to be absolutely neutral, and you just proved it. Left to my own devices I would definitely have favoured Freud. But I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to favour no one and let them speak as they spoke and to do what they did.”
Nevertheless, Jung is evolving. Like Seth Brundle, – he’s exploring these new possibilities.
“That’s right, but would you want Seth Brundle to be living in your apartment?”
He laughs dryly.
Cronenberg is 68 now and A Dangerous Method is his 17th feature film. And though his bankability has fluctuated, his intellectual currency never has: his work must be among the most rigourously scrutinised and interpreted of all time, often by people who find all sorts of unintended signs and meanings. If it bothers him, he doesn’t show it. “Well,” he shrugs, “it’s a legitimate thing to do. In fact, as an artist. you want that. If the work is organic and alive, it suggests all kinds of possibilities. If it’s dead, you don’t get that. Some movies are like that – you just consume them and that’s that. You digest them easily and they’re gone. So if your work has some validity as art, then it will continue to throw up sparks and new interpretations and connections.”
And the work, like the people in those early movies, continues to mutate. Was it a conscious decision to move away from body horror and that effects-driven form of sci-fi? “No, no, it’s just a natural evolution, y’know. I don’t feel I’ve turned my back on the genre at all. I mean, Existenz is not that far in the past. But I have, obviously, a desire not to repeat myself, because it’s just boring. Often the genre screenplays that are offered to me have been so influenced by my past films that it feels like I’d be remaking my own movies – and why would I do that? But if something wonderful came along, I wouldn’t hesitate. In other words, I don’t have the desire to turn my back on horror or sci-fi and feel I must leave that behind in order to be taken seriously as an artist. I think there have been wonderful works in those genres that definitely qualify as art, and it’s not inevitable that if you do a horror film it’ll be bad. I have a lot of interests, and if I lived long enough I’d make a thousand films, and they’d be all over the place.”
A longer version of this article appeared in Wonderland’s February-March issue.
Cosmopolis is in cinemas now.
Words: Damon Wise