Canadian director David Cronenberg certainly isn’t averse to making shocking, disturbing and often controversial films. From his earlier “body horror” work like The Fly, Videodrome and Scanners to more recent, and decisively different, films like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, he has always had a penchant for boldness.
It’s peculiar and ultimately disappointing, then, that his latest film – in spite of its acting and subject matter pedigree – feels altogether too safe and restrained to leave any sort of lasting mark.
Adapted from the stage play The Talking Cure, the film focuses on the intense and conflictive relationship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), chronicling the birth of psychoanalysis, and the female patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) at the centre of it.
The idea of making a movie that explores the birth of psychoanalysis is intriguing, and you’d think Cronenberg of all people would be perfectly suited to it. So why then is it so timid? Sure there are (out-of-place) scenes involving Keira Knightley being spanked by Michael Fassbender, but there’s an air of blandness that unfortunately cloaks the entire film, a general stuffiness, and an irritating reservedness that leads to a lack of accessibility.
Sticking out like a sore thumb is Knightley as the troubled patient Sabina. It’s a showy performance, with Knightley jutting out her jaw, shaking her body almost constantly and putting on a thick (and questionable) Russian accent. You can see what Cronenberg was going for with it, but it’s entirely misjudged.
The other main performances, from Fassbender and Mortensen, are excellent, however, each bringing a magnetic and enigmatic quality to a very famous and influential man. The film is actually told more from the perspective of Jung, exploring his forbidden and temptation-filled relationship with his primary disturbed patient, while Freud only appears intermittently. The tense, often fascinating scenes between Fassbender and Mortensen in which they’re discussing the specifics of psychoanalytical theory are easily the highlights of the film.
If nothing else the film is absolutely beautiful to look at, the sumptuous cinematography by Cronenberg’s regular cinematographer Peter Suschitzy giving the film a classy and classical feel to transport us back more than a hundred years ago. Howard Shore’s memorable score gives a feeling, and false-promise, of intrigue which is lacking elsewhere.
Skipping from one year to another makes the film feel fractured and random, never quite settling into one time before whisking us off further down the road. This lack of focus, alongside the clinical atmosphere, leads to a certain detachment for me as a viewer. Perhaps given the subject matter, that was entirely the point, and we’re supposed to feel detached as outsiders looking in. But that inertness only hinders our involvement in these characters’ lives.
I expected more from Cronenberg than this dry, stuffy and restrained film that almost feels like he was scared to do anything bold with it. Not that he should just always do what he’s most known for, but nevertheless this is not the same man we know from The Fly. And as a fan, I really wish it was.
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