One key scene in Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant new film has Lancaster Dodd (aka The Master, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) drive his daughter Elizabeth, son-in-law, and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) out to a wide expanse in the desert and tell them they’re going to play a game called Pick a Point. You look to the horizon, find a far-off landmark, and ride a motorcycle as fast as you can in a straight line toward that spot. Master hops on and roars off, exhilarating in the speed and direction while his daughter cheers him on from their starting point. When he returns, Freddie dutifully but unenthusiastically takes his turn on the machine. Elizabeth still cheers. At first the Master enjoys watching it too. “He’s going really fast,” he comments to no one in particular. Then his face alters, as he’s hit with waves of ambivalence.

One can read so many things into that face. After seeing it, we argued about moments like this for ninety minutes afterward, surprised to find such different opinions about the film’s central concerns. That’s what makes this film so rich: its open ends beg you to comb over its conversations and vignettes.

I wish I’d gone to see this film with a psychologist, for it most fundamentally asks whether a damaged psyche can heal (and doesn’t offer a rosy answer). Not that conventional psychology is the answer. By the latter days of World War II Freddie is already so far gone on self-destruction that he gets marched in to see a couple of army shrinks, but their clunky approach to the talking cure hits no targets. Self-medication is Freddie’s game. He self-administers cocktails made with virtually anything — paint thinner, photo processing chemicals, Listerine — which permit him to keep slurring his words, living in a haze, remaining mostly unemployed.

But the film also treats the intensity of a relationship between one as utterly lost as Freddie, and the Master who thinks he can help. Can we call it “help”? Or should we term it love? Just what Freddie and Master get out of their relationship is never clear, nor do we really understand the intensity of their bond. No matter. It’s supposed to be open-ended. It’s the most compelling male relationship I’ve ever seen onscreen.

Don’t be fooled by the notion that they are Master and acolyte. Sure, this is partly a story about an L. Ron Hubbard style charismatic leader who inspires a cult-like following based on an idiosyncratic concoction of psychology, hypnosis, past-life regression, compelling storytelling, and a good singing voice. But you’re not watching this film to learn anything new about cults or charisma or the psychology of followers.

Because Master is not really in control. Nor is he entirely successful as a charismatic leader — why, just look to members of his own family for doubt. Even his apple-faced new wife (Amy Adams) has more iron control packaged into a glowing, pregnant, schoolmarm-ism than Master could ever demonstrate. Master is not drawn to Freddie simply to control him.

Nothing could make a better contrast/ incongruity than the two men’s bodies. Years of dedication to drink have left Freddie gaunt, with weedy chicken arms and a stooped frame, as if his ravaged kidneys won’t allow him to stand up straight. You’d never guess Joaquin Phoenix is only 37 years old, for his thinness in this part is well-nigh alarming — equivalent to the horrors of Christian Bale’s skin and bones in The Machinist (2004). Meanwhile, no one looks so self-satisfied, porcine, and gleaming as the Master. Especially when stage-lit in front of Freddie’s camera, as below. When Freddie only gets more emaciated throughout the course of the film, the thought flicks across your mind that it’s as if Master were eating all the untouched servings on Freddie’s plate … and perhaps getting additional nourishment from Freddie’s oh-so-available soul, like a Dementor in Harry Potter.

What writer-director Anderson does in bringing these men together is allow them to develop a relationship beyond the bounds of the roles you might expect here. Himself a master of creating conflicting, deeply uncomfortable situations for his characters, Anderson forces these two men to face up against each other in a variety of ways that have no clear outcomes and intermittent catharsis. Most uncomfortable of all is the realization that no matter how kooky (and creepy) Master’s psychological methods, they’re far more effective than anything Freddie ever got from straight-up psychologists.

Yet The Master is not a story of redemption and healing. In fact, if anything it’s the most honest film about treatment I can think of — so much more powerful than David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method (2011), for example — in displaying not just the uncomfortable love and transference between the two figures, but the way that aggressive psychological treatments that demand honesty, self-revelation, and forced psychological breakdowns comprise a form of rape.

Tortured by lost opportunities and deeper demons, Freddie treads water and gulps his toxic cocktails while the Master fights the law on one side and, on the other, acolytes who question his intellectual consistency. No wonder the two men cling together in this crazy embrace, alternately lashing out at one another with the only tools they have available to them. For Freddie it’s sheer physical rage. For Master it’s blarney and a nice trick for maintaining a crowd around him to sustain the illusion of relevance.

And all around them are women. Amy Adams’ terrific turn as the Master’s wife, far more talented at the job of managing a movement than he is; Freddie’s idealized memory of the girl back in Lynn, Massachusetts who got away; Master’s lovely, unavailable daughter Elizabeth; and that big-breasted sand-castle woman his buddies made on the beach, only to have a drunken Freddie feign aggressive sex with it and ruin all the fun.

Like so many self-consciously “serious” Hollywood films, this is about men — but the difference here is that this is a film fundamentally concerned with gender and sex so much so that Freud would have had a field day. From male bonding to psychological rape to a couple of fantasy sequences and Freddie’s pathetic impotence, this film shows that Anderson has a lot more sensitivity toward women than his prior films would suggest.

I’m telling you, this is not an easy film — nor does it have the grandiose spectacle of Anderson’s earlier films, like There Will Be Blood or the occasional sweetness of Punch Drunk Love and Magnolia — rather, it’s a brilliant work about a male relationship conditioned by sex and love and women and trauma and appalling amounts of hooch. Nor can I imagine an actor this year who does more to inhabit his role than Joaquin Phoenix. Without a single remaining ounce of flesh to fill out his haggard face, emotions ripple across it, forcing him to hunch his back all the more under the weight of guilt and defensiveness. This film will not answer any questions for you; you’ll walk out, as we did, bouncing questions off one another (what was it about the singing? what about forcing Freddie to walk back & forth across the room?) until gradually your conversation helps you wrangle this id of a film into a more manageable shape. Oscar contenders: this is a shot across the bow.

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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.

So I woke up this morning to find it was 1° F outside. (That’s -17° C. Can we say “yikes!”?) Naturally, two things crossed my mind:

  1. (Sarcastically.) It’s really too bad the gym is closed and I’ll have to stay inside all day in my pyjamas.
  2. (Seriously.) Why is everyone calling Meryl Streep’s performance in The Iron Lady an “impersonation” of Margaret Thatcher?

I know, you’re thinking:

  1. What a geek.
  2. Yeah, why “impersonation”? Please tell me, Feminéma!
  3. It’s just a little cold — put on a few layers and go for a walk already, wimp.

Blogger JustMeMike pointed it out in his review of the film, noting the term’s appearance in virtually every review (just google it and you’ll see). “How come no one referred to Leonardo DiCaprioimpersonating’ J. Edgar (Hoover) in the same way?” he asks. Exactly!

Impersonation. It’s one of those terms that skirts between flattery (“an eerie job of inhabiting that real-life personage”) and a backhanded slam against such close attention to accent, appearance, and personal tics as less than true acting (“it’s only a parlor trick”).

It reminds me of the problem of the “uncanny valley” in modern 3D animation (I’m looking at you, Tintin) whereby audiences find themselves revulsed and disturbed when an animated character looks too realistic. Impersonators, after all, are the kinds of low-level entertainers who appear in Vegas or on Saturday Night Live. Impersonators emphasize exactitude rather than artistry. A great impersonation gets all the details right — but can’t go further to impress with real acting skill.

Let’s also remember that there are female impersonators — that category of campy performer who dresses as Liza Minnelli or Dolly Parton in order to get a lot of whoops from a drunken audience. These performers are not associated with manly acting talent.

As near as I can tell, those critics who are also good writers have used the term impersonation not to complain about Streep, but to contrast her strong performance with the utterly disappointing film. Roger Ebert writes, “Streep creates an uncanny impersonation of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, but in this film she’s all dressed up with nowhere to go.” A. O. Scott likewise uses his flattery of Streep’s work as a rhetorical pivot to detail the film’s shortcomings. “Ms. Streep provides, once again, a technically flawless impersonation that also seems to reveal the inner essence of a well-known person,” he explains, before complaining about “the film’s vague and cursory treatment of her political career.” In other words, these writers seek to make it clear that Streep did what she could with a lame script.

Since then, however, critics who are less aware of their vocabulary’s connotations have jumped on the impersonation wagon to use it all the time in describing her role. “Meryl Streep’s performance as/ impersonation of Margaret Thatcher had Oscar written all over it,” writes Roger Moore. John O’Sullivan also admiringly notes that Streep’s “uncanny accuracy … goes beyond brilliant impersonation” in his piece for Radio Free Europe. These pieces blur the boundaries between impersonation and acting; yet my actor friends bristle at the notion that they are equivalent or that performing in the role of a real-life person demands impersonation. After all, numerous flattering reviews of My Week With Marilyn state something to the effect of, “Michelle Williams doesn’t so much impersonate Marilyn Monroe as suggest her.” None of these statements seem overtly to associate impersonation with acting that leaves something out. I truly don’t think these writers use the term to complain about Streep (or Williams, right), at least not consciously.

But this returns us to JMM’s question: why don’t these writers use the term impersonation when they discuss Leonardo DiCaprio’s J. Edgar (or, for that matter, his Howard Hughes from The Aviator)? Why wasn’t Michael Fassbender “impersonating” Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method, or Colin Firth “impersonating” King George V in The King’s Speech, or Jesse Eisenberg “impersonating” Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network?

Here I can only speculate, as I don’t know the inner souls of all these film critics, but I want to suggest that it can be attributed to an unconscious bias in favor of the superlative acting skills of male actors. An enormous percentage of published film critics in the US are male. Combine this with an industry seriously tilted toward male success and you have conditions within which even the most female-friendly critics are less inclined to celebrate an actress’s accomplishment without using terms with complex connotations. (Would a male critic really associate a male actor with the term impersonation so long as there are “female impersonators” out there?) This bias may be unconscious and not intended to express sexism, but we can see its effects nevertheless.

Until I started this blog and educated myself on the issues, I was unaware of the extent to which men dominate filmmaking and film criticism. It’s not just the fact that women appear onscreen less, behind the camera less, as producers less, as writers less — and that they get paid less overall. It’s also the more subtle things — the ways a woman’s subtle performance will get overlooked as male critics fall over themselves to praise her male co-star. The ways that female actors inhabit such a severely limited range of body types — I dare you to come up with the female equivalent of Philip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Giamatti, much less Cedric The Entertainer or Gérard Depardieu.

These critics may not be consciously demeaning Streep’s performance. But the term impersonation is not a wholly flattering description of what she does — if it were, we’d have seen it appear in reviews of men’s biopics.

Now, off for a walk while it’s still a balmy 11° F (-11.6° C).