dir: David Cronenberg
Famous and frightening Canadian director Cronenberg’s love affair with Viggo Mortensen continues, with every film he comes up with having Viggo in a crucial role. Who can blame him? Viggo is awesome. And even more than Viggo being thoroughly awesome, he was also great in those last two flicks of his, being A History of Violence and Eastern Promises.
Michael Fassbender’s no slouch in the awesomeness department either, so casting these chaps as Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, the two titans of psychoanalysis in the early part of the 20th Century, would seem like a sure-fire box office blockbuster.
Maybe not. Both of these chaps bring solid acting chops to a story that isn’t that well known. Freud’s name is common currency, but Jung’s not as prevalent, since people don’t make Jungian slips that often, perhaps, or at least they don’t admit to it. The point of this story, however, is not a biopic about the lives of the two men instrumental into identifying and pathologising a lot of the craziness out of there. It’s about Jung’s relationship with a crazy woman, played very crazily by Keira Knightley foremost, and then it’s about the falling out between Freud and Jung.
Fassbender gets a lot, if not the lion’s share of the screen time. His Jung is a restrained, brilliant man who searches, endlessly searches for knowledge. The conflicts that arise for him come about mostly because of his frustrated desires as they relate to his wife, his patient Sabine (Knightley), and his relationship with Freud, the stern patriarch of their newly ploughed field of psychoanalysis.
Unfortunately. Keira Knightley gets too much screen time. Any screen time is too much. At her ‘craziest’, to indicate how out there Sabina is, she does this really weird thing where she looks like she’s unhinged her jaw like a Burmese python trying to swallow some poor creature whole. She juts that thing out there, frightening more than the children. As her sanity increases, we can thank the gods that the jaw jutting reduces in frequency and distance.
It’s just the weirdest thing. She doesn’t do much better in plenty of other crucial scenes, drawing attention to her acting so much that you just wished she would stop, for crying out loud. Considering the field of inquiry that these people are in, the sometimes darkest depths of the human psyche, it’s important to have someone who can navigate those treacherous waters competently, or at least as well as Fassbender is capable of.
Let me put it this way: Keira Knightly can’t even make getting spanked look convincing. Even something as simple as playing a woman who loves getting spanked copping a decent spanking from a strapping young lad like Michael Fassbender is beyond her reach.
The problem I have with how distracting her performance is, is that her character is far more important than I realised at the beginning. I’ll get to that towards the end of the review, because it’ll make more sense then. And no, it’s not just about the stupid Russian accent she puts on unnecessarily.
At least, I hope it’ll make more sense later on. I’m sure Knightley thought her performance would work out, and just look at how that worked out for her.
Jung is respected, wealthy, doing the work he loves, has a beautiful redhead wife who keeps popping out children, so you’d think he wants for nothing. He’s also been anointed, in a way, by the father of their field, Big Daddy Freud, who smokes and smokes and smokes. We see respect, mutual admiration, and the desire between two minds to achieve great things.
Except… Except Freud isn’t interested in someone who’s trying to make new discoveries. He isn’t looking for someone to embiggen their field, or to make new discoveries, or to find new, better ways to help the people in their care.
What he wants isn’t clear immediately, but we’re left in no doubt later on. Most of all, he couches all his advice and recommendations in the language of the good of their field, and the damage that could be done to their credibility as doctors and as proponents of psychoanalysis if anything beyond the Official Line is pursued.
Jung’s not satisfied with that. At the very least, through watching this performance, Fassbender invests within Jung this restless desire to discover new territory. At first, these impulses are battened down by Freud, who sometimes outright fears Jung’s new ideas, especially when they contradict his own.
Poor Jung is frustrated in another way, that being the fact that he has desires that aren’t intellectually solvable, and can’t be allayed with the working out of a crossword puzzle, or a few sudokus on a Saturday morning.
It is only when he takes on, at Freud’s request, a psychoanalyst as a patient that he really gets to deal with the frustration he feels. Otto (Vincent Cassell, in probably his quietest performance ever, though very effective all the same) is a doctor who can’t stop himself from fucking every woman he can, because he’s sure that there’s absolutely no merit to the repression of the libido. Jung, not very confidently, tries to give his patient the party line during their sessions, but it becomes clear that it’s Otto who’s schooling Jung, and not vice versa.
Long did these champions of the ‘talking cure’, from which the film gains its title, believe, or at least Freud used to constantly put it about, that human civilisation only becomes possible once people repress a whole bunch of stuff, including and especially the desire for hot, hot sex, for at least most of the time.
And here’s Otto Gross, telling Jung, “Nah, go for it, dude. Have at her, man.” He is able to get Jung to admit within seconds his desires for his patient Sabina, and gives him the go-ahead to get it on with a crazy, jaw-unhinging, woman who’s but a pale shadow of a woman.
Unleashed, naturally, Jung’s penis is much happier, at least for a while, but since no-one can ever be happy for too long, which would signal the end of drama forever and ever, it doesn't last. It is not a surprise when things get very complicated for all concerned. The ego battle between Freud and Jung intensifies before it reaches a final culmination, and Jung’s relationship with Sabina is only part of the problem.
In what I thought was going to be a crucial and revealing part of the flick, when Freud and Jung travel together to America, it proved to be the biggest disappointment, not because it wasn’t acted or scripted right, but because I expected something more. I had no reason to expect it, but that’s how it goes. We see them travelling together, we see and hear the little signposts indicating just how fractious their relationship is, for whatever reason, and then they get to America, and that’s it.
Was something missing, or did it say everything that needed to be said? During that trip Jung asserts himself and contradicts his ‘mentor’, knowing that Freud hates that, and Freud admits that he can’t reveal something personal to Jung because he feels it will undermine his authority.
The battle, perhaps not surprisingly, is forced into the contours of the Oedipal, in that it really seems to Freud at least like Jung wants to kill his ‘father’ in order to take his place. The mother he wants to have sex with, well, you can figure it out, but within this Freud also manages to make it about issues of Jewish identity, and a fear of / resentment towards Gentiles (like Jung), because he feels that people like himself and Sabine, no matter how respected in their field, are still at the mercy of the goys.
It’s only at the end that it hit me, perhaps against my will or because I’d been so resistant towards her character, that it’s actually Sabina Spielrein whose the most fascinating character in this story. I don’t necessarily mean historically, since little of the flick feels like a history lesson, even if some of the names and places are accurate. But, to put it glibly, she’s a sadomasochistic lunatic who finds her way back to sanity thanks to the tender ministrations of Herr Doktor Carl Jung, has a hot and steamy affair with him, goes to university and studies medicine, becomes a pioneer in the field of psychoanalysis and even shows Freud and Jung a thing or two, presenting ideas about the sexual drive and the destruction of the ego that the big boys just had to rip off for themselves. And this was in the 1910s and 20s! That’s pretty impressive in and of itself, but I guess not so much for the purposes of this flick.
No, it’s far cooler to watch Viggo smoke cigar after cigar, and Michael Fassbender walk around looking slightly peeved.
There are fascinating elements here, but that doesn’t mean the flick works. The most I think people with come away with is the fact that, if they’re so inclined, they’d wring enjoyment from watching Fassbender and Viggo just sit around chatting about stuff and smoking.
And that’s it. For a Cronenberg flick, it’s surprisingly restrained, and perhaps that’s the most notable aspect of it.
6 times I’ll watch a flick only because Viggo and Fassbender are in it, clothed or unclothed, obviously, out of 10
“Pleasure is never simple, as you very well know.”
- “It is... of course it is. Until you decide to complicate it, which my father calls maturity. What I call surrender.” – A Dangerous Method