Long before Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier faced off, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung fought their own fight of the century. Jung had been Freud’s leading psychoanalytic disciple - until they quarreled and became bitter enemies.
In “A Dangerous Method,’’ which opens today, Viggo Mortensen plays Freud, and Michael Fassbender plays Jung. David Cronenberg, directing his first feature since “Eastern Promises’’ (2007), serves as referee.
The movie is based on Christopher Hampton’s 2002 play, “The Talking Cure.’’ The most important participant may be Keira Knightley, who plays Sabina Spielrein, a patient of Jung’s who also sought treatment from Freud. The movie takes as fact the longstanding speculation that Spielrein and Jung had an affair.
Speaking last month by telephone from Los Angeles, Cronenberg talked about the movie.
Q. What drew you to the project?
‘It’s the first film I’ve done with actual historical characters. What was new was the desire to resurrect real people . . . .’David Cronenberg
A. A friend of mine recently pointed out to me that the very first film I made was a seven-minute short called “Transfer,’’ about a psychiatrist and a patient who is stalking the psychiatrist. So, obviously, that new thing Freud had invented, the relationship between an analyst and a patient, I find fascinating. It relates to how we understand and relate to people. When I read Christopher Hampton’s play I suddenly got excited about Freud and the birth of psychoanalysis and his relationship to Jung and all that. Suddenly here was this beautiful dramatic structure - which also introduced me to the existence of Sabina Spielrein. I got very excited about this whole moment in history - not just about psychoanalysis, but also about it being on the verge of the First World War.
Q. It’s been four years since “Eastern Promises.’’ Were you getting antsy?
A. You know, I’d been working on other things that fell through. I just know that rhythm. It wasn’t as if I didn’t have anything else going on. There were other things that were going to happen, and I’ve gotten used to that. I’ve just finished “Cosmopolis’’ [an adaptation of the Don DeLillo novel]. It’s the first time I’ve done two [movies] back to back. I say it’s my Woody Allen moment. Of course he’s been working like that for 30 years!
Q. This movie marks a departure for you.
A. It’s the first film I’ve done with actual historical characters. What was new was the desire to resurrect real people as much as art will let you do that. Certainly you can do a biographical film where you have an agenda, where you’re trying to destroy someone or correct a perception. But here the audience can just react to that reality.
Q. You don’t take sides.
A. Yes, that was our non-agenda agenda, simply because Freud and Jung were titans. They were intellectual masters and they were of great value to humanity and extremely interesting and provocative characters who really shook up the times they lived in. The three of them, including Sabina, invented the 20th century, as John Kerr put it in his book “A Most Dangerous Method’’ [the basis of Hampton’s play]. It didn’t require a sort of shaping force - we didn’t have to favor one over the other - to make them interesting or have them be provocative.
Q. How much of a psychiatrist does a director have to be?
A. Not at all, I think. I know there are directors who need to psychoanalyze their actors and ask them about their relations with their parents and stuff like that. That’s an ersatz version of the Method, I guess. A good professional actor doesn’t need that. What you as a director have going for you is your own understanding of human nature and your artistic instincts about the rhythms of speech and how people behave. On the other hand, there are some directors, like Bernardo Bertolucci, who’s said he uses psychoanalytic method. Of course any artist who’s grown up in the 20th century has been hugely influenced by Freud, and Jung as well. You absorb it. It’s part of the zeitgeist.
Q. Have you ever been analyzed?
A. I’ve never felt the need. I jokingly say I have no problems. That said, I take it seriously. I have great respect for analysis, and know a lot of people who’ve done it. But I think it’s something you do when you have a specific need.
Q. How hard was the shoot on Keira Knightley? She gets quite a workout in the film.
A. It certainly required everything she had as an actress, and I think she has a lot. I have to say, she was so well prepared. We talked about the symptoms of hysteria, and about Sabina’s symptoms, which are very well known. So we knew basically what we were going for. But she was the one who had to do it, and with tons of dialogue - and long takes, because I did very little cutting. She’d almost always do her scenes in one or two takes. Michael [Fassbender] said something very generous, and very accurate, about Keira, “She was our leader.’’
Q. This is your third film with Viggo Mortensen. There would seem to be a real chemistry between you.
A. Chemistry is the right word. It’s on many levels. It’s personal. We feel like brothers somehow. It’s cultural, too, something like his being half-Danish and my having lived in Copenhagen. It’s hard to quantify. I’ve worked with many actors, but there’s something special between him and me. It’s just a lovely working relationship.
Q. You’ve also worked before with Vincent Cassel [who plays a renegade colleague of Jung and Freud’s], but not with Fassbender or Knightley. Is there much of a difference between working with an actor you’re familiar with and one who’s new to you? Or does it just depend on the actor?
A. It really depends on the actor. Usually you settle in pretty quickly. One of the interesting things about the film family is that it’s instant intimacy. You’ve all done movies before - not with each other, but it’s almost as if with each other. That sense of intimacy’s not false, it’s quite real.
Q. Are you getting tamer as you age?
A. I absolutely don’t think so. You’ll see “Cosmopolis’’ and tell me! I know exactly what you mean, though, and I take no offense. I see a script and give it what it wants. I could have gone crazy with this film and staged dream sequences, for example. But, no, this is the talking cure. The whole point was that people would express their dreams through talking. So rather than thinking of tameness or not, I’m thinking of giving the movie what it needs to be good.
Q. If Freud and Jung got transported to that steam bath in London, the one from “Eastern Promises,’’ who’d win a knife fight?
A. Well, you know, Jung was younger. The thing is, though, you’ve got to give them both credit. Those Germanic types were healthy. It was always hikes in the woods, hikes in the Alps. Both those guys were in pretty good shape. So I think it would be a pretty titanic duel - and they’d both have been pretty vicious.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.