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'A Dangerous Method,' 'Melancholia' take cues from Richard Wagner

November 25, 2011 |  9:00 am

Dangerous

Filmmakers have been borrowing and adapting the music of Richard Wagner since the dawn of cinema. The 19th century German composer's lush, dramatic music often serves as a kind of emotional hormone for the screen, providing an adrenaline rush in action sequences and surges of romantic feeling for scenes of passion.

But sometimes a soundtrack is more than just a soundtrack. In the case of two recent films -- David Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method" and Lars von Trier's "Melancholia" -- Wagner pervades the scores as well as the story lines, informing the psychology of the characters while adding crucial sonic subtext. To fully understand both films requires an immersion in Wagner's music and ideas.

In Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method," the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) enters into an adulterous affair with Sabina Spielrien (Keira Knightley), a young Russian patient suffering from hysteria. Their relationship takes root in a shared fixation on Wagner's "Ring" cycle operas. While they both prefer "Das Rheingold," the first opera in the cycle, it is the third opera, "Siegfried," that plays a key role in the movie.

Wagner's Siegfried is a pure-blooded Aryan hero, the product of an incestuous union between brother and sister. In the movie, Sabina internalizes the myth to an obsessive degree. "The idea was that she would have a sinful relationship with Jung and then give birth to this hero, this heroic Siegfried," Cronenberg explained in a recent interview.

Cronenberg said he researched psychoanalytic circles of the early 20th century. "One of the unique things about these people is that they kind of mythologized themselves," he said. "Their intellectual passions were not just abstract -- they tried to embody them, they tried to bring them into their own lives and live out of them. And so they could very easily see themselves being characters in a Wagnerian opera."

Howard Shore, the Oscar-winning film composer, has scored most of Cronenberg's films. For "A Dangerous Method," he based the soundtrack on Wagner's "Siegfried." "It follows the opera in terms of its overall structure -- I used the bones, if you will, of the opera to create the structure and the arc of the music," Shore said in an interview.

In one sequence, Jung's wife, Emma (Sarah Gadon), gives birth to their first son. But instead of a celebratory scene, the movie cuts to Jung meeting Sabina for an amorous assignation. The sequence is scored to the section of the opera known as the "Siegfried Idyll," which Wagner originally wrote as a gift for his wife, Cosima.

Shore said he chose the "Siegfried Idyll" to show that Jung was a loving man, despite his faults. "He had this strong desire to be with Sabina, but he loved is wife and his family life," he said. For the movie, Shore used a piano arrangement of the "Siegfried Idyll," and the piece is performed by pianist Lang Lang on the soundtrack.

"A Dangerous Method" was written by Christopher Hampton, adapting his play "The Talking Cure," which itself was inspired by the 1993 nonfiction book "A Most Dangerous Method" by John Kerr. As explained in Kerr's book, Sabina's "Siegfried complex"  was a complicated neurosis that "stood simultaneously for the son [Sabina] would give Jung and for Jung himself."

In Hampton's original play, Jung says at one point that he admires Wagner's music but not the man himself. For the movie, Cronenberg changed the line so that Jung expresses his admiration for all of Wagner, which would implicitly include the composer's anti-Semitism. (Spielrein was Jewish -- and so, of course, was Sigmund Freud, played by Viggo Mortensen, who ended up mentoring both Spielrein and Jung.)

"David and I had a very long discussion about this," Hampton recalled in an interview. "It was the only single line for which we had a long discussion."

Cronenberg said he had no agenda when it came to the characters: "I have read a lot of Jung and I do not get the impression that he had any problem with Wagner and in particular his anti-Semitism. ... I don't think Jung would be at all bothered by his anti-Semitism because he had a bit of it himself. In the context of the times, you wouldn't think that Jung was anti-Semitic, but in the context of our times, you might well."

The filmmaker added: "We're not trying to rehabilitate [these characters]. If Jung behaved badly in a certain way, then so be it. In other words, we're not looking to create a character who's likable if he's not."

Melancholia

"Melancholia," the latest movie from Lars von Trier, takes its thematic inspiration from a different Wagner opera, "Tristan and Isolde." The futuristic movie follows a new bride, Justine (Kirsten Dunst), and her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), through a disastrous wedding reception followed by a cataclysmic end-of-the-world scenario in which a rogue planet named Melancholia crashes into Earth.

A sense of impending annihilation pervades "Melancholia." Von Trier begins the movie with an overture sequence set to the mournful prelude of "Tristan," and he repeats sections of the prelude throughout the film. On the story level, "Melancholia" fully absorbs the opera's themes and ideas, though not in a literal sense.

"Tristan" begins with an unwilling bride being taken to her wedding; "Melancholia" likewise introduces Justine on her way to the wedding reception where it is soon revealed that she suffers from depression and can barely tolerate her new husband (Alexander Skarsgard).

Wagner's opera is a nocturnal reverie -- the illicit lovers meet under cover of night and consummate their love in the small hours of the morning. "Melancholia" is also obsessed with nighttime, with key scenes taking place in the deep of twilight, including the wedding reception, Justine's nude frolic by the water and the first awe-inspiring encounter with the planet Melancholia.

Most significantly, "Melancholia" borrows the opera's central theme of "Liebestod," or "love-death." In the opera, the protagonists escape the mundane by sublimating their love through death. In "Melancholia," Justine reaches a plane of transcendence just as the rogue planet nears Earth and human life is threatened with total destruction. In both cases, death offers the characters a form of extreme emotional release and all-consuming catharsis.

Von Trier has been connected to the music of Wagner before. The Danish filmmaker was supposed to direct the 2006 production of the "Ring" cycle at Bayreuth but eventually withdrew. 

For "Melancholia," adapting the music from "Tristan" fell to Kristian Eidnes Andersen, the sound designer and music arranger on the movie.

Andersen said that Von Trier initially wanted a lot of sad music but eventually settled on the "Tristan" prelude. The music "puts people in a fragile emotional situation ... you open up people's feelings and to the greatness of the world," Andersen said.

The "Tristan" prelude was performed for the movie by the City of Prague Philharmonic. Andersen said that he had a soloist dub over the cello section to provide a more unified sound and to "get more into the emotions." He added that Von Trier wanted to repeat the "Tristan" prelude over the end credits, but they ended up using the opera's Act 3 prelude instead.

"I think people should have after-thoughts and needed a less complex piece," Andersen explained. "This prelude from Act 3 is much simpler."

Andersen acknowledged the movie's debt to Hitchcock's "Vertigo," the soundtrack of which is also based on Wagner's "Tristan."

"[Hitchcock] started it and then we followed," Andersen said. The opera "has big emotions but it's personal. That's what you need in a film score."

RELATED:

Terrence Malick's 'Tree of Life': The classical music factor

Critic's Notebook: 'Shutter Island' as a new-music haven

John Adams lends his music to 'I Am Love,' starring Tilda Swinton

-- David Ng

Photos: Top, Keira Knightley and Michael Fassbender in "A Dangerous Method." Credit: Liam Daniel / Sony Pictures Classics. Bottom, Kirsten Dunst in "Melancholia." Credit: Magnolia Pictures

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