The Deliberate Method of Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud in 'A Dangerous Method'

Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud in A Dangerous Method (2011)

Today PopMatters begins a five-part countdown until the November 23 release of David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method. Today Stuart Henderson recounts his meeting with Oscar-nominated actor Viggo Mortensen.

A Dangerous Method

Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, Sarah Gadon, Vincent Cassel
Distributor: Sony

What do 21st century audiences really know about Sigmund Freud? There’s the cigar joke, the stuff about dreams and sex, the screw-your-mother-kill-your-father riff, and maybe a smattering of penis envy. But, I can’t help but wonder if our collective knowledge of this seminal thinker has become reduced to a few pop culture clichés and pseudo-scientific buzzwords?

Certainly this is the sense one gets when surveying his usual role in our entertainments – a favourite dream-sequence caricature, the pop “Freud” tends to step in, all imposing accent and stuffy intellect, to interpret a character’s situation and set them on a sunnier path before they awaken. What does he usually say? What wisdom does he impart? For the most part it’s a bunch of armchair psychology, metaphorical ramblings, and mystical mumbo jumbo about freeing the subconscious.

This is our Freud – a kind of mental medicine man who can see beyond our public face into the recesses of our darkened soul and tell us who we are. It’s all bullshit, of course, a fantastical reimagining of a man whose insights and approaches to the heretofore under-explored workings of the human mind largely underwrote the work of the great thinkers of the twentieth century (in ways both good and not so). But, as far as stock characters go, he sure makes an attractive one for writers because when they bring the old Viennese shrink into the scene they get to expose deeper truths through pithy symbol-interpretation rather than through regular old exposition. Plus, they usually get to make a cigar/penis joke, so there’s that.

All of which helps to foreground why one finds Viggo Mortsensen’s complex and rewarding take on Sigmund Freud in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method so bracing. Gone are the expected gestures of a thousand comic strip banalities, the over-the-top absurdities of countless trite pop cultural visions of the man and his work. In their place we find a brilliant, deeply thoughtful, and powerfully restrained man very much of his just-post Victorian time. Languid of speech and careful of tone, Mortensen’s Freud is both comforting and frustrating, caught between his conviction that the science of the mind is a crucial arena for study and the knowledge that what he has found there is likely to prove too controversial for the general public. He is cautious and yet righteous, evangelical and yet circumspect. It’s a wondrous creation, and among the shiniest moments of Mortensen’s already impressively brilliant career.

A longtime supporting player in Hollywood, Mortensen became an overnight A-lister with his darkly sexy portrayal of the Ranger Aragorn in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. But, it was with his turn to smaller, more intimate films in subsequent years that has cemented his reputation as a leading man. Most notably of these are his two (and now three) collaborations with David Cronenberg, first in 2005’s A History of Violence and then in 2007’s Eastern Promises. Now, with his superb work in A Dangerous Method it seems that Mortensen has truly emerged as the Canadian master director’s go-to lead. Over a cup of yerba maté at the Toronto International Film Festival, I had a chance to chat with the Danish-American actor about his method, his relationship with Cronenberg, and his thoughts on the great Viennese doctor.

“The thing I really liked, as I got used to the language, was having a character that spoke this much. I usually don’t get to play characters like that. Usually the characters I play (including for David [Cronenberg]) are men of few words who communicate largely in nonverbal ways.” And it’s true that Mortensen’s Freud is a talker; although it’s more that he is a teacher, a wise elder in his scenes with the fledgling Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). “As soon as I started researching I understood what he was saying and I started to get into a groove,” he explains, “especially as far as the character’s sense of humour.”

But before the research – which Mortensen dove into, pouring through acres of Freud’s writing, critical discussions of his work, and bios of the other principal characters in the film – he had to be convinced that he could even fit this part. “Well [Cronenberg] was in a jam. It was just last, not totally last minute, but pretty late in the pre-production. The actor that was supposed to play Sigmund Freud [Christoph Waltz] decided to do another movie so they had to recast. Fortunately I was available.” (This is the friendly way of saying that Waltz backed out at the 11th hour, and there was a mighty scramble to secure a player for this crucial role.)

“I wasn’t available when [Cronenberg] asked me to play the part the year before. But yeah, it worked out. I mean it probably was helpful to him that he’d worked with me before […] and I would show up prepared and I was familiar with his way of working. That was good for me too because if somebody else had asked me to play this part I would have said, ‘No I don’t think I’m the best actor for this. It’s a bit of a stretch.’ But because it was him and I knew him and we’re good friends, and I respect his opinions, if he feels that strongly about it that he’s coming back to me a second time and saying, ‘You are my first choice for it, not because we worked together, but I just think you would understand the character’ and so forth, if he’s saying it there must be something to it.”

Mortensen’s performance betrays none of this initial reluctance. Indeed, his overarching confidence is perhaps what one feels most acutely while watching his work. “It was a lot of fun. A lot of times that happens, though. The thing that seems like the biggest challenge, and the most: This is not going to work, I don’t know how to do it… Once you crack it and get comfortable, it ends up being more enjoyable than the things that come easier.”

Perhaps the most interesting facet of Mortensen’s take on Freud is his ability to convey a roiling complexity below a placid surface. His Freud is a man wracked by anxiety over a demanding, and perhaps unwilling, public. He is an outsider, self-conscious of his radical ideas, terrified of moving too far too fast, of pushing too much and being slapped down for his transgressions. His confidence is a mask draped across his insecurity. But this diffidence is as much about his concern that psychoanalysis is too radical for the people as it is about his own ethnic difference.

A Jew in Austria in the early 20th century may have enjoyed fewer social impediments than in decades past (or, for that matter, in those to come), but he was still and always a Jew. “There was a lot of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism in Austria was much more pervasive than in Germany. […] He grew up in that atmosphere. Also in a very repressive atmosphere generally, not just about sex, but just free thinking. There were very strict censorship laws in the 19th century in Vienna. One of the reasons, the roots of his wit and that ironic tone that he has in conversation, is a self-defence mechanism, a way of getting around censorship and anti-Semitism. It’s […] a way of speaking about something without naming it, using wordplay to get around it.”

Mortensen maintains that recognizing a distinction between humour and wit was the key to getting inside the character. It was Freud’s playful facetiousness, his sense of irony, that conveyed duality, conflict, depth. “Humour is like… you’re secure in who you are, and you’re just making jokes about life, maybe. Wit is a bit sharper and it’s sort of a weapon. It’s more of a defence and it has a lot to do with [Freud’s] upbringing. One of the things you see in the movie is – and it stems from that – is the very different [personalities of] Jung and Freud. Jung was from a more, I don’t know if it’s a pastoral background, but [his father was] a small town Christian pastor preacher. A preacher’s son, a very different type of person.

Freud was the son of a Jewish merchant, who moved his whole family to Vienna because he couldn’t get work and suffered. He as a boy watched his father be mocked and abused on the street for being Jewish. He just grew up in that. You developed a thick skin and you developed a certain kind of wit to defend yourself, especially if you had no other means, physical or money or whatever to protect yourself. You have to be quick on your feet mentally.”

But with all of this research under his belt, and all of this insight into the character, it was actually something else that constituted the creative spark, that led to the moment when Mortensen finally understood how to embody Sigmund Freud. “A lot of times when you’re looking really hard for something, as they say, it’s right under your nose. I did tons of research and shared it with David [Cronenberg] and he did tons of research. We enjoyed all of that. But the first or second day of shooting I realized a very significant part of what I was chasing after was right in front of me. It was David. Because his sense of humour and his wit and his intelligent conversation are not very different from Freud’s at all, from the Freud that I learned about in the research.

So it’s not like I thought ‘Wow I didn’t have to do all that research!’, but it was the icing on the cake. Then I started looking at Freud differently, and I found him even more amusing than before. I was like, oh yeah: ‘What would David do?’”

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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