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For Your Consideration: 'A Dangerous Method' and 'Shame'

Now more than ever, most of the good work in cinema is ignored by the Academy in its award nominations. One critic's list of the top twenty movies of 2011 has almost nothing nominated for the Oscars. My immediate reaction to the nomination list was that some of the movies that got nods for Best Picture this year have no business being there: The Help, Midnight in Paris, and War Horse are the most glaring, but The Artist, while unusual and likeable enough, would probably not have gotten my vote either. The Tree of Life, while ultimately a failure in my opinion, is at the very least a challenging and monumental film. Top on the list of missed recognition is Melancholia, reportedly torpedoed by Lars von Trier's dumb remarks at Cannes last year -- but still chosen as Best Film by the National Society of Film Critics. Also raising an eyebrow, these two films starring Michael Fassbender (to go along with Jane Eyre, already reviewed) are both better than some of the duds on the Best Picture list, and Fassbender's performances, wildly different while being about related subjects, are more deserving than some of those nominated in the Best Lead Actor category.

At the opening of David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, a young Russian woman, Sabina Spielrein, is brought by force to the Burghölzli clinic in Switzerland. Dangerously, almost absurdly over-played by Keira Knightley with jaw-thrusting, face-twisting terror, the woman's reaction makes clear that treatment for mental illness, such as it was at the turn of the 20th century, was a terrifying prospect. Happily for her, her case is taken up by Carl Jung, the pioneering psychoanalyst, who surprises her by treating her like a calm and rational person and asks her to answer his questions while he sits behind her. Played with ramrod stiffness by Fassbender, in an interpretation reminiscent of Daniel Day-Lewis's Cecil in A Room with a View (Fassbender is apparently an admirer of DDL), Jung is caught in an Oedipal struggle with the psychoanalyst who becomes his mentor, Siegmund Freud, played with gruff, cigar-sucking authority by Viggo Mortenson. Fighting against Freud's determination to show that frustration of the sexual drive was the root cause of most neuroses, Jung is unable to stop himself from giving in to his own urges and bedding Spielrein.

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Of course, Cronenberg has waded into sexual obsession territory before (Crash, Dead Ringers, M. Butterfly), but not with such clear and good results. The story has the benefit of being based on historical events: Christopher Hampton's screenplay adapts his own play based on John Kerr's book A Most Dangerous Method, about the relationship of Jung and Spielrein, who went on to study psychiatry herself, one of the first women to become a psychoanalyst. A dastardly supporting performance comes from Vincent Cassel, as the rogue psychiatrist Otto Gross, who is partly responsible for pushing Jung into Spielrein's arms. One of the surprises of the film is the lovely score by Howard Shore, whose work I do not always admire: here he adapts and transforms themes from Wagner's Ring cycle, which is a fascination of both Jung and Spielrein in the movie. The Leitmotifs begin in the film long before the first time the characters mention Wagner, but there are many intriguing combinations: the Valhalla music plays as Freud and Jung arrive in New York Harbor, passing the Statue of Liberty, and the Rhine music is heard as Jung and Spielrein are reunited to revise her dissertation and renew their affair.

As Hampton's screenplay tells it, part of the dispute between Jung and Freud was that Jung wanted not only to show the nature of the psychological problem but to give the patient hope for how to overcome it. Freud, for his part, abhors Jung's grasping at mystical ideas, his reluctance to accept the basic nature of sexuality in neurosis, saying in the film that they have no right "to replace one delusion with another," only to show the world as it is. It would have been fascinating to see what the two psychoanalysts would have made of the case of Brandon Sullivan, a sex-addicted man in New York City played again by Michael Fassbender. Brandon's problem is certainly not repression, as he spends what must be most of his salary on prostitutes and Internet porn (women show up on webcams when he opens his laptop, already knowing his name and what he wants). At the same time, it does little to assuage his insatiable hunger for sex, as with voyeuristic intensity the camera follows him as he masturbates constantly -- in the shower, in the rest room at work. It is the only thing he knows: his one attempt at something resembling a normal dating life ends pathetically.

Instead of Wagner's opera, if the score by Harry Escott were going to recycle any music, it would have to be Mozart's Don Giovanni, but it does not. Instead Brandon listens to -- what else? -- Bach (one of Glenn Gould's Well-Tempered Clavier preludes while he runs, and Gould's Goldberg Variations, on vinyl, of course). Still, Brandon is a sort of modern-day Don Juan, seducing women with nothing more than his stare, like the woman who eventually runs away from him in the subway. As he watches them, he hears them moaning in orgasm or sees them undressed. Into this life of sordid rituals comes Brandon's sister, Sissy, played with bleach-blonde aloofness by Carey Mulligan (Drive) as a torch singer whose career twists bring her to crash in her brother's apartment. In a beautiful scene, Sissy's halting, mysterious performance of New York, New York recalls a similar one of It Seems Like Old Times by Diane Keaton in Annie Hall (Sissy even wears the same hats).

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As directed by British visual artist-turned-director Steve McQueen, the film is a series of tableaux, sometimes blue and toneless, sometimes lurid with color (cinematography by Sean Bobbitt). The screenplay, co-written by McQueen with Abi Morgan, is often wordless or almost so, especially when it hovers on Fassbender and Mulligan, contrasted with the chattiness of the only other character, Brandon's hapless boss, David, played with smarmy cluelessness by James Badge Dale (The Departed). The silence of the film may irritate some viewers, and it does have its missteps, for example, there is no plausible reason for us to believe that Mulligan and Fassbender, two Brits, were raised in New Jersey as they supposedly were. Still, a nomination list that leaves out the name of Michael Fassbender this year -- he was also snubbed by the National Society of Film Critics -- is not to be trusted.


Todd Babcock said...

I like what McQueen does with silence and Fassbender can hold you to the screen with simply his focus and listening. Their previous collaboration with 'Hunger' has an entire movie hinging on one, long un-cut dialogue scene that had me entranced.
Completely agree Fassbender was over-looked but on the bright side he's being offered everything under the sun.

Charles T. Downey said...

As if we needed reminding that a ceremony in which the film industry congratulates itself on its "best" work is not really of that much interest. They should probably hand out Oscars to the films that grossed more and to the actors who commanded the largest fee.

Todd Babcock said...

Michael Bay presents the Transformer of the Year Award, again, to Johnny Depp in 'Pirates 12'.