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.
25 October 2011
The ayes have it: the winner for Best Men’s Hair of Filmic History goes to that romantic, Byronic period of history, the Regency era!
Now, I haven’t studied the actual hair history enough to confirm that this bears strong relations to reality, but there’s at least some evidence to confirm this claim. To wit: check out this portrait of the Prince Regent himself — the Prince of Wales, who served as King of England in place of his sick father, George III until 1820, when he ascended to the throne in his own right as George IV. Now there’s a man who kicks the shit out of artfully tousled hair, pushed forward just enough onto his face. Even Lord Byron was known to enhance his considerable beauty by wearing curling-papers in his hair at night. Let’s sing out a collective “thank you” to costume dramas for keeping those styles alive.
Ditto all the above for Colin Firth’s hair in the BBC series Pride and Prejudice (1995). I’m still sorry this version had such a contrast between the stellar acting of the two leads and the embarrassing over-acting of every single other character. (Still: I’ll take this version over the Keira Knightley/ Matthew Macfadyen version  any day. Even when you factor in the fact that in the latter version the secondary characters were terrific.) The rest of you can chirp about that scene when Firth dives into the pond, but I prefer him wrapped up, gazing with sparkling eyes at Lizzie from across the parlor at Pemberley, showing off his curls and sideburns.
Let us not overlook Alan Rickman’s version of Colonel Brandon from Sense and Sensibility (1995), less because he’s got curls pushed forward onto his face than because, damn.
According to the movies’ version of history, heroes got darker as the century progressed, and their hair got less purely romantic. In the case of Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton in North and South (2004), the severe hair and those barbed sideburns accentuate his fiercely angular face. They also mirror his own proclivity for abrupt rage, which he always seems to regret. This delicious series shows us that we must measure his growing love for Margaret by those rare moments when he loosens his tie and unbuttons the top button of his white, white shirt rather than by the softness of his curls.
In Jane Eyre (2011), Michael Fassbender’s Mr. Rochester sports deeper and more dangerous sideburns and, I would argue, messy hair that signifies risky and complicated emotions bubbling underneath. If Armitage portrayed a self-made man worried about losing everything, Rochester’s lack of financial concerns was a thin cover for his other worries, making him as unpredictable and changeable as that hair. Oh Jane, beware your feelings!
And isn’t it striking how little we want to reproduce the women’s hairstyles in all of these films! The puritanical buns of the Brontës’ characters, the foolish curls Elizabeth Bennet found herself wearing, the elaborate braids and hats… it was the beginning of a long, long period of bad hair news for the ladies, till they started chopping it all off in the 1920s. Which makes me appreciate the 20s all the more.