Everybody remembers the exploding head. But the key moment in David Cronenberg's Scanners is the calm before the storm — the scene where the assorted outcasts, artists and biological telepaths mingle their minds, using their gifts not to make their enemies explode but to share consciousness with the collective. It's not necessarily an explicit shout-out to the process of psychoanalysis — Cronenberg has never been one to explicitly lay out his influences. Yet his 17th feature, A Dangerous Method, serves in some ways as a decoder key to his other films. Its themes and historical concerns inform all his work, a body that encompasses splatter opera, gender evolution, technological sublimation and sci-fi critteration.
Here Cronenberg has made his first outright period piece, and it's the next step in the evolution of costume-drama awards bait (which explains why it got snubbed by the Oscars). On the surface it looks completely respectable: historical costumes, a romance against the rules/in spite of the odds, some sexual provocation, some of our favorite players from the past brought to life, foreign scenery — in other words, the same thing we get five or six times a year. But hatching from that cocoon of familiarity is an organism completely alien to The King's Speech and its ilk. This movie is about ideas, and speaking truth to the repressive tendencies of human culture.
We have colleagues and friends Sigmund Freud — Viggo Mortensen, who can do anything at this point and never be anything less than captivating — and Carl Jung, played by Michael Fassbender, who between this film, Haywire and Shame (all currently in local theaters) is showing an unimaginable amount of psychosexual range. Between them comes Sabina Spielrein, a Russian Jew suffering from incapacitating hysteria. She's played by an uninhibited Keira Knightley, finally delivering on the promise of Domino and The Jacket (and now forgiven for those inert Pirates of the Caribbean movies).
"The Talking Cure" may help Spielrein access and express her feelings, but can pre-WWI Vienna withstand a woman drawing strength from her own masochistic tendencies? A better question, perhaps, is whether audiences drawn by the promise of a heaving bosom and unchallenging history will embrace a film that gets down and dirty in depicting the psychological ground zero in our cultural sexual development. Here's hoping they do. A Dangerous Method is exquisite: a wrenching drama about sex, religion, emotional turmoil, the mind and body in conflict, and the communicable nature of intellectual desire and curiosity — all the makings of an essential David Cronenberg film.