…in which “A Dangerous Method” forces me to change my mind about Keira Knightley

13 April 2012

I totally get it now.

I’ve never quite understood why Keira Knightley is an A-list star, nor why she gets such good roles (like Atonement, Pride & Prejudice, and Never Let Me Go) – until I saw her in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method (2011). It always seemed to me she was being cast against type. Whereas those earlier films insisted she was a quintessential English rose, as Lizzie Bennet in P&P she appeared to me more likely to bite one of her co-stars than to to impress anyone with her fine eyes.

What Cronenberg gets (and I didn’t, till now) is that Knightley’s angular, toothy, twitchy affect shouldn’t be suppressed but mined instead.

Now that I’ve finally seen A Dangerous Method, I can’t imagine another actor taking on the role of the hysteric Sabina Spielrein to such effect. Jewish, Russian, fiercely intelligent and tortured by her inner demons, Sabina is the perfect dark mirror sister of Jung’s blonde and blue-eyed wife (Sarah Gadon), who always appears placid, wide-eyed and proper, and sometimes apologizes for errors such as giving birth to a daughter rather than a son. Now that’s a rose of a girl.

Maybe she seems exaggerated, but Jung’s wife embodies the self-control and physical containment of their elite class as well as their whiteness. No wonder Jung (Michael Fassbender) is so thrown by Sabina. For all her physical contortions, Sabina is also open to change, open to the darkest of insights. She opens up her mind and her memories to him with stunning willingness, revealing black thoughts associated with dark sexual urges. The more she ceases repressing those memories and associations, the more she reconciles them and begins to heal — and begins to use her quicksilver smarts in a way that shows her full embrace of the “talking cure”. No wonder she captivates Jung’s imagination, which is only the beginning of his growing disloyalty to his wife.

Knightley’s impossible skinniness only enhances her performance here. Whereas in most other films her body gets presented to us as yet another ridiculous size-00 slap in the face to the rest of us fat pigs (and don’t you forget it, Ashley Judd), in A Dangerous Method her body exemplifies a lifetime of self-punishing neurosis. There’s nothing more improbable than seeing her heavy dark eyebrows and her olive skin — and hearing about her sexual arousal via humiliation — all the while bound up in those cruel corsets and lacy, white, high-necked dresses that on any other woman would be persuasive signifiers of her chastity.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that what I found most impressive about Knightley’s performance was the way she showed how the later, “healed” Spielrein — the one who no longer screams and juts out her chin — was a recognizable incarnation of the earlier hysteric. Her clenched and slightly hunched shoulders, her black looks, her tight mouth. She’s a whirlwind of intellect and energy, and the performance is brilliant. As the excellent JB writes over at The Fantom Country, “Even in relatively calmer moments, she seems trapped inside a state of ceaseless panic, caught, gasping for air, in the dragnet of some trawler that never sleeps.”

This is especially important for the contrast between her corporeal presence versus that of Jung and Freud, who exert an absurd degree of self-control and containment, like disembodied brains. When she kisses Jung for the first time, his weak response is to note, “It’s generally thought that the man should be the one to take the initiative.” When someone refers to the “darker differences” between the two, we know those differences are both racial and sexual — and that Spielrein is the dark one, the one whose vagina has needs and rages, and smells like a real woman’s vagina (thanks to Kartina Richardson’s terrific piece, “Keira Knightley’s Vagina”). It makes me wish that Knightley rather than Natalie Portman had appeared as the lead in Black Swan — again, a statement I never thought I’d make.

Spielrein and Jung’s other patient, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), both profess to a startling optimism about analysis: “Our job is to make our patients capable of freedom,” Gross pronounces, a sentiment Spielrein shares but cannot realize. Her own ecstasy peaks as Jung gives her erotic spankings; clearly, humiliation still retains its primary charge. The film doesn’t explore the gendered nature of hysteria, which brought so many women low during those decades a hundred years ago, but it does highlight how one’s freedom was limited by other cultural boundaries — most notably race. Spielrein looks genuinely crushed when her new interlocutor, Freud, pushes her down with the observation, “We’re Jews, Miss Spielrein — and Jews we will always be.”

We don’t very often call it hysteria anymore, but we still see manifestations of inexplicable corporeal neurosis in girls and women that defy explanation, as in the strangely infectious case in upstate New York this year. How amazing it would be to find a filmmaker to address the subject. I’ve always thought that someone could take the 1690s Salem witch hysteria as a case study, Arthur Miller-style, to try to explore some of the contributing factors behind such mass outbursts of tics, twitches, and personal misery. And I’d love to have Knightley involved again, honestly.

People love to talk about the synergy between Cronenberg and his frequent male lead, Mortensen, as being one of the great director-actor combinations of the last decade. But now that I’ve seen what Cronenberg got out of Knightley, I want him to unearth new roles for her instead so we can see more of what she can really do once she lets go of the English rose routine. I totally get it now: Knightley can act. And I’m genuinely looking forward to more of it.

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16 Responses to “…in which “A Dangerous Method” forces me to change my mind about Keira Knightley”

  1. wobsy Says:

    I’ve not seen “Dangerous Method” yet but I’m certainly looking forward to it and I’m definitely a Knightly fan. I thought she was superb in Atonement.

    • Didion Says:

      She was so good here that it makes me want to see Atonement again, because I may have disregarded her performance there. JB over at The Fantom Country put it kindly: “I wonder if Knightley is one of those actors who just rubs some people the wrong way, if you know what I mean,” which is a nice way of indicating that I took an instant dislike to her after seeing her version of Pride & Prejudice. But as I say at length here, I’ve changed my mind. And she’s got many, many productive years of terrific roles ahead of her (by my math, she’s still only 27).

      • wobsy Says:

        It can be difficult to discern actor input from direction and writing but I’m convinced that she’s good. I hope we see a lot more of her.

  2. servetus Says:

    This is one of the more interesting things I’ve read recently. Great writing, great thinking. And since we’ve been made into Jungians…

    • Didion Says:

      You know, I’ve got to see this film again so I can pay more attention to 1) Jung’s tentative exploration toward mythic/archetype/religious meanings, and 2) Fassbender’s and Mortensen’s performances. This film isn’t exactly an endorsement of Jung’s perspective, even though he’s the protagonist; it seems to support Freud’s view of the libido more than anything. And of course the riskiness of the talking cure more generally.

      But then, you and I are fairly dedicated to the talking cure — so long as it’s in the right company. Am I right, or am I right?

      • servetus Says:

        I’ve finally seen this, under pressure from UK Expat, and I thought that the three best pieces of the movie were: (a) storyline around Spielrein was the best part of the movie; (b) the successful recreation of the atmosphere of those years in that milieu (and the foreshadowing of the 1920s “horror” aesthetic in Knightley’s appearance, which feels like it was a sort of realistic version of the women’s faces in Caligari, and (c) Knightley. Wow, I felt like I had never seen her before.

        I agreed with you that I have never understood why she was getting such great roles but this convinced me. Interestingly if you look at the awards the film got, they all went to Cronenberg, Mortensen and Fassbender. Knightley, who’s been drowning in nominations, got nothing for this. I can’t help but feel like that is remarkably strange.

        Finally: I didn’t feel like the film did the intellectual aspect of the Freud / Jung split anything like basic justice.

      • Didion Says:

        I know! Knightley was great! How did they possibly think Mortensen did much of anything in that film except be saucily inscrutable, and Fassbender (mostly) mildly tortured? Compared to Knightley, anyway, who was like a breath of fresh air.

        And OH MY GOD the issue of the Freud/ Jung split. I felt like I was fighting with a grad student who’s learned from someone that the only thing that matters when you write is that you create a interesting personal story/ conflict between key individuals rather than actually identify what the contours of that conflict consist of. I know this film was based on a stage play, and that it’s hard enough to get audiences to follow the exploits of a bunch of turn-of-the-century intellectuals, but it was sooooo lite.

      • servetus Says:

        you could easily leave the film thinking that the most important split between the two was that Freud was about diagnosis whereas Jung was about helping the patient change his/her life.

        I was ambivalent about Viggo Mortensen. There were times when I thought he was good, times when I was not convinced. But I never thought he was *great*.

  3. JB Says:

    Thanks for the lovely, insightful piece. And of course the interblog hopscotch that allows us to have something like a dialogue.

    I think you nailed it when you note that what likely attracts Jung to Spielrein is, above all, the plasticity of her persona, the way she recognizes her needs, comes to terms with them, and is then willing to explore ways in which she might satisfy those needs. Her changeability counters the perception of psychoanalysis as reductionist and self-perputuating. What is it she tells him when he describes the sort of sex he has with his wife? “Then this is something different,” if memory serves. Gives me a shiver. A sexy, sometimes scary sort of shiver. The sprawling allure of that something different. Maybe that’s what Jung’s thinking about in that final, perfectly measured moment of silent disquiet.

    • Didion Says:

      I might be over-reading here, but what I saw in that progression of scenes in which Jung is reaching for a broader analysis that goes beyond sex at the center of all neurosis — and then being impressed with Spielrein’s capacity as an analyst and then to sex with her — is that pervasive sense of inadequacy he seems to feel. He can’t convince the ever-inflappable Freud (or even Spielrein) of the importance of his insights; and in those sex scenes … well, he seems a bit overwhelmed by her passion for the spanking. And she’s just so smart, so willing to turn the analysis toward herself and then back at other subjects or even Jung. That’s something he’s less willing to do. Maybe it’s not inadequacy per se, but a hint of failure he expresses on that face. Fascinating.

      So perhaps the “something different” isn’t just the sex, but also his very different role with the two women. With one he’s the unquestioned master/husband; with the other he’s not sure at all who he is.

      • JB Says:

        I don’t think you’re over-reading at all. I think you’re articulating something I was only sort of fumbling around in my comment. Yes, not inadequacy per se, but a feeling of being lost, perhaps, in the hazy terrain between inhabiting a determined role and moving through a voluptuous uncertainty and an experimentation that is finally left incomplete.

      • Didion Says:

        Yes! that’s it exactly. And after sex with his good-girl wife, this must’ve been different indeed.

  4. Hattie Says:

    Hmm. Well, I feel a little out of it about all of this. Need to think about it all.

  5. xtremeenglish Says:

    I thought this movie was fabulous. Thanks for this post. I’m not smart enough to write intelligently about movies. Flannery O’Connor wrote about one of her characters that she had two basic attitudes, forward and reverse. That’s me and how I relate to movies. This one was fast forward, though it wasn’t an easy movie at all. Just amazing.


  6. […] by Didion originally published at Feminéma. I totally get it now. I’ve never quite understood why Keira Knightley is an A-list star, nor […]


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