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David Cronenberg Discusses the "Intellectual Menage à Trois" of "A Dangerous Method"

Director David Cronenberg's new film, starring Keira Knightley, Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen, looks at the relationship between Freud, Jung, and Sabina Spielrein.

This story originally appeared at Salon.

There are many reasons why David Cronenberg is a beloved interview subject for film journalists, and of course the quality, vitality and breadth of his movies have an awful lot to do with it. Beyond that, though, the Canadian director whose career stretches from near-experimental horror films like “Shivers” (better known in the United States as “They Came From Within”) and “Videodrome” to more recent collaborations like  “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises” is a genuine intellectual in a realm crowded with poseurs and pretenders. He can talk easily about almost any topic you bring up; if he hadn’t turned out to be one of the premier cinematic visionaries of his generation, it’d be easy to imagine him as a writer or philosopher or historian.

I have no personal relationship with Cronenberg beyond our professional conversations, but he’s become so prolific during his post-’90s resurgence that I wind up seeing him once a year or so, generally over coffee in some anonymous Manhattan hotel suite or other. This year’s Cronenberg movie, of course, is  “A Dangerous Method,” a rather restrained production by his standards that explores the ambiguous relationship — an “intellectual ménage à trois,” he calls it — between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), his idol and rival Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Jung’s psychiatric patient, lover and collaborator Sabina Spielrein (a terrific performance by Keira Knightley). I’ve  already written about “A Dangerous Method” extensively, so I won’t belabor any of that except to say that if you belong to the class of people who complain about the dearth of intelligent, challenging and accessible movies for grown-ups, rush out and see it immediately. (The film is already playing in New York and Southern California, and will expand soon to many more markets. See below for a list.)

It might be depressing to reckon with the fact that Cronenberg is now 68 years old, but he appears vigorous and entirely undiminished. A publicist came in to break up our conversation after half an hour, but he’d cheerfully go on talking all day, and similarly shows no signs of slowing down his creative pace. He’s already finished his next film (it will be his 17th feature), an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel “Cosmopolis” that stars “Twilight” dreamboat Robert Pattinson as a young New York zillionaire. Numerous other potential projects lie ahead, including proposed sequels to “The Fly” and “Eastern Promises,” along with reported adaptations of Jonathan Lethem’s “As She Climbed Across the Table” and Martin Amis’ “London Fields.”

I spent the first part of our conversation trying to convince him to adapt former Reuters journalist Mary Gabriel’s fantastic biography  “Love and Capital,” about the marriage of Karl and Jenny Marx, and their family and intimate circle. He can carry over the cast of “A Dangerous Method” virtually intact: Mortensen as Marx, Fassbender as the dashing, wealthy ladykiller Friedrich Engels, and Knightley as Baroness Jenny von Westphalen, the provincial beauty who abandoned her Prussian aristocratic family for a life of penury as Mrs. Marx. I’m not asking for any kind of commission here, David. He seemed to like the idea: “Now, having Viggo play Marx, that  is good. Then I would only have to get him to play Einstein, and he’d have covered it all.”

I recently read Charles Drazin’s book “French Cinema,” where he talks about the difference between old-school French movies, what they used to call the “tradition de qualité ,” mostly literary adaptations and historical dramas, and the auteurism of the New Wave, where you had to be a writer-director. It struck me that in your career you’ve almost gone backward, from the second kind of cinema to the first.