Has David Cronenberg turned tame?

Has the director veered too far from his roots with 'A Dangerous Method', asks Tom Huddleston

David Cronenberg on the set of 'A Dangerous Method' with Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud David Cronenberg on the set of 'A Dangerous Method' with Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud

David Cronenberg may have given the world venereal turd monsters, parasitic penis grafts, car-crash porn, surgical tools for operating on mutant women and the ultimate exploding head, but after more than 40 years in the directing game, he has done something truly shocking: he’s gone respectable. His latest film, ‘A Dangerous Method’, follows eminent psychotherapists Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) as they pontificate and pipe-smoke their way across nineteenth-century Europe and come to blows over the case of schizophrenic masochist Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). There’s barely a drop of blood (or any other bodily fluid) on display, and the only scene which even borders on being transgressive is a brief, tasteful spot of spanking between Fassbender and Knightley which is bound to disappoint anyone hoping for more of the ‘Shame’.

But is ‘A Dangerous Method’ really such a departure for Cronenberg? The frilly frocks and stiff upper lips may suggest as much, but in truth, the director has been circling the idea of reputability for a while now. His most recent films – ‘A History of Violence’ (2005) and ‘Eastern Promises’ (2007) – had their fair share of bloody, bonecrunching action, but the gruesomely inventive body-horror which kickstarted his career was notable by its absence.

Indeed, despite his old nickname, ‘The Baron of Blood’, Cronenberg has always been tricky to pin down. Even at the height of his fascination with death, disease and decomposition, he’d take time out to direct a straight drama about his other passion, stock car racing (1979’s ‘Fast Company’) or make a fairly gore-free studio picture like haunting Stephen King adaptation ‘The Dead Zone’ (1983). Even his icily offensive anti-erotic masterpiece ‘Crash’ (1996) is far closer to black comedy than horror. Each of these points towards his present film, ‘A Dangerous Method’, as they focus on character, motivation and psychology rather than brutality and bodily decay.

But the clearest pre-echoes of  ‘A Dangerous Method’ in the Cronenberg canon can be found in two divergent but oddly sympathetic films made more than 20 years apart. The director’s 70-minute calling card, ‘Crimes of the Future’ (1970), displays a nascent fascination with psychotherapy and the connections and collisions between the mental and physical worlds.

The film recounts the adventures of experimental dermatologist Adrian Tripod, a graduate of the House of Skin, whose quest to discover the whereabouts of his mad mentor Antoine Rouge leads him to join a series of oddball organisations including the Metaphysical Import-Export Society and the Oceanic Podiatry Group. Part sick and disturbing joke, part sophomoric sci-fi pastiche and part avant-garde oddity, ‘Crimes of the Future’ displays an interest in – and sense of humour about – the intricacies and absurdities of the psychology industry which finds a more serious and scholarly expression in the new movie.

The other direct antecedent of ‘A Dangerous Method’ is the director’s 1991 historical drama ‘M Butterfly’, in which Jeremy Irons plays a British diplomat who falls for a beautiful Chinese opera singer, little suspecting that his paramour is not only a Communist spy, but a man in drag. Here we see Cronenberg’s interest in costume and façade, and the deep-seated differences between surface selves and inner lives. It’s a film about the dark and desperate recesses of the human psyche, the lies we tell ourselves in order to survive in a high-pressure world. And like ‘A Dangerous Method’, ‘M Butterfly’ takes itself terribly seriously, offering earnest performances and spectacular historical recreation, but lacking in passion and failing to get to the beating heart of the matter.

Because the real question is not whether Cronenberg should be tackling this kind of highbrow drama – surely, a director can make any movie he chooses to – but rather, is he any good at it? And on the evidence so far, the answer has to be, not especially. ‘A Dangerous Method’ may be visually sumptuous and flawlessly acted, but it’s also oddly anonymous, possessing a kind of ersatz ‘Downton Abbey’ sheen far removed from the visceral intensity of Cronenberg’s earlier work. His informed fascination with the early days of psychiatry is never in doubt, but he never lets us share in that sense of discovery and excitement. The result is an unsubtle, one-note, even rather dull film. Where movies like ‘Videodrome’ (1983), ‘The Fly’ (1986) and ‘Dead Ringers’ (1988) left viewers spinning, desperately struggling to dig through all the layers of meaning, inference and intention which Cronenberg crammed in, ‘A Dangerous Method’ is all surface: pretty, but empty.

Like ‘Fast Company’ and ‘M Butterfly’, ‘A Dangerous Method’ may be a blip for Cronenberg, a punt at respectability before returning to his true calling: shocking audiences silly. But given that his next film is an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s similarly psychological ‘Cosmopolis’, that seems a vain hope. Every one of Cronenberg’s films is clearly the product of a discerning, insightful and deeply intelligent mind – even, perhaps especially, the truly sick and outrageous ones. The difference now is that he seems to want to rub audiences’ and critics’ faces in that fact, rather than letting us figure it out for ourselves. The bottom line is this: any BBC journeyman could have made ‘A Dangerous Method’. No one but David Cronenberg could have made ‘The Fly’.