by director David Cronenberg
We know the couch, but how many of us know the chair? Not the simple analysis chair beside the couch, but the study armchair, the work chair. There were many scenes in A Dangerous Method set in Freud's famous artifact-crammed study, and although we glimpse the iconic couch, there are no scenes that take place on it. But the chair!
I was so surprised when I saw it; I had never come across a chair like it. It was in the Freud Museum in Vienna—the Freud family's old apartment at 19 Berggasse—and it was a replica with a sign on it warning you not to sit in it. The original was at the Freud Museum in Hampstead, London, where Freud lived out his last year in 1939 after fleeing Austria and the Nazis. It was made for Freud by the architect Felix Augenfeld as a gift from Freud's daughter, Mathilde. Strangely modern and yet somewhat Victorian in its sturdy wood and brown leather, it had a cheerful Gumby-like human shape with arms that seemed to want to encircle you. It would have been a crime not to have our Freud—played by Viggo Mortensen—sit in that amazing and expressive chair, so we commissioned the replica maker to make us our own.
Freud wrote many of his earth-shaking works sitting in that chair, surrounded by the art and artifacts of a hundred cultures. Forced research is one of the pleasures of moviemaking, and it was particularly so for this, my first biopic. When we discovered Mathilde's description of Freud often reading in this chair with one leg looped over one chair arm, book held high, head unsupported, leaning back casually, an image made all the more charming by the unfailing formality of his dress, I knew this was a moment we had to have in our movie. When Viggo began waggling his foot in agitation over what he, as Freud, was reading, I did a close-up of that suspended foot, that wonderful shoe capped by its gray spat. These are the tiny details that help resurrect a historical figure to the full extent that art allows.
When I finally saw the real chair at Maresfield Gardens in Hampstead, I could see that it was more finely made than our budget-limited replica. Leather stitching rather than crude furniture nails bound the aging, cracked hide, and the shapes of the arms and the seat were more complex, more elegant, and the varnished tortoiseshell finish of the back of the chair put our raw wood to shame. But I have our chair in my house in Toronto now, and it has a double history for me—Freud and his movie doppelgänger Viggo/Freud—and I like to sit in it from time to time. It always surprises me how good its lumbar support is.