Directors discussing human capacity for sex and violence are a dime a dozen. For more than 50 years, David Cronenberg has dissected it — often quite literally, creating weapons made of human bone or shoving handguns into tremulous, vaginal stomach slits. Of course, such unpredictably invasive anatomical moments are just one part of Cronenberg’s aggressive tradition. Even in his less fantastical work, he rarely separates sex from violence, poking and prodding to seek potentially perilous similarities in the chemical reactions caused by those acts. In honor of Cronenberg’s films, and his 80th birthday, Midwest Film Journal presents a monthlong retrospective on his work: Ew, David!

Given how forcefully David Cronenberg made his name with body horror, “Cronenbergian” became a justified byword to describe such films whether he made them or not. But at the turn of the century, Cronenberg pivoted away from body horror into what some would describe as more “conventional” fare like Eastern Promises or A History of Violence.

Despite lacking the overt horror expressions for which audiences found and loved him, Cronenberg’s more “mainstream” films still touch on many of his familiar themes — repression, evolution and transgression all part of their thematic spines. A favourite such film, oft-overlooked even by fans of this period of Cronenberg’s work, is A Dangerous Method.

Set in 1904, the film follows would-be renowned psychologist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) taking on Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a patient whose maladies modern medicine cannot resolve. Jung applies his psychoanalysis to discover her indulgence in taboos has caused her to become hysteric. When Jung reaches out to the father of psychology, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) for advice, they grow closer until their methods (some of them dangerous!) open fissures that widen over the years — driving the two men apart, with Jung’s relationship with Spielrein often at the centre. (These events actually took place, although Cronenberg and screenwriter Christopher Hampton dramatize them and then some to tell this story.)

A Dangerous Method is a worthy picture illustrating the science of psychology in its infancy and how Freud and Jung analyse themselves as much as their own patients. Indeed, even before he meets Spielrein, Jung engages in word-association experiments with his wife. “Why must we put so much effort into suppressing our most basic natural instincts?” That’s the question asked by Jung, and an exquisitely Cronenbergian one at that. Is it an attempt to grapple with the nature of being human or man rationalising his own infidelity — or both? Jung pushes forward, in some way, the idea of a more liberal society, but he’s also justifying his own infidelity in doing so and straying further from Freud’s more “scientific” approach. Anyone familiar with Cronenberg’s films can see how this pattern fits neatly alongside something like Crash. The director uses the relationship between Freud, Jung and Spielrein as a space to investigate social evolution and the different ideas that can power them. Sparing you the theoretical breakdown for fear of turning this into a psychology textbook, the two men’s differing points of view form the basis for Cronenberg to discuss nothing less than the divergent core concepts of why people act the way they act.  

The three leads’ constant observing, investigating and theorising about behaviour is reflected in Cronenberg’s filmmaking; despite potentially salacious and scandalous material, the camera’s observations and points of view feel clinical and removed. The performances are all-around fantastic as well. Some at the time called Knightley overblown, but by historical accounts, she accurately matched Spielrein’s symptoms. Fassbender and Mortenson are excellent, too (the latter Oscar-nominated for his turn), and endow their characters with appropriate amounts of authority and conflict. Cronenberg’s usual maestro, Howard Shore, delivers an appropriate score, as he always does, with urgent and unsettling tones underscoring situations in which the characters find themselves.

In the end, A Dangerous Method might not present stark, shocking and iconic imagery found in so many of Cronenberg’s films. But it has more in common with The Fly, Videodrome or Crash than you might imagine, and any fans of Cronenberg’s work owe it to themselves to check it out.