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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“I just want to be perfect,” Natalie Portman’s character Nina explains to her director Tomas (Vincent Cassel), when she defends her gifts as a dancer. Perfect, but she’s not good enough. Honestly, I think that in 100 years when historians look back at the condition of women at the turn of the 21st century, they will use “I just want to be perfect” as the most cutting, accurate articulation of our culture’s contradictions. And when I say this, don’t focus solely on the word perfect — think about the word just as well. It’s a statement that begs for approval from others, assumes an impossible standard, and modestly begs not to be seen as unattractively ambitious. Viewers of Black Swan: get ready to enter our world.

Am I exaggerating? Certainly not for young women like Nina (Portman). Back in 2003 Duke University was rocked by an anonymous letter to the editor of the campus paper that described a woman’s slow loss of confidence during her undergraduate years at Duke. She explained that women undergrads adhered to the ideal of “effortless perfection” — the notion that they should have perfect hair, clothes, weight, grades, and success — demands made all the more impossible because girls must never display the crushing effort required to achieve any of it. They exercised on treadmills for hours to be able to eat pizza later on. They just had to be perfect. The letter led to the usual results (hand-wringing by the Women’s Studies department, denials that there might be a problem) but here’s the thing: this is hardly limited to Duke. The New York Times featured a story in 2007 about high school girls who do everything — and likewise strive to be “perfect” — and still get rejected, crushingly, from colleges. We’ve been bemoaning the diseases of anorexia, bulimia, and other distorted body image issues for more than a generation now; it doesn’t take much to see that thinness is part and parcel of a broader set of demands that likewise have overwhelming psychological effects on girls. Perfect, perfect, perfect. It’s the disease of our time. Is this movie an elaborate metaphor for the experience of girls and young women?

Who’d be more susceptible to this psychic burden than a ballet dancer? The competition, the necessary precision, the need to be beautiful as well as freakishly talented, the toll on one’s body. Portman has famously discussed losing a whopping twenty-plus pounds from her tiny body for the role (“I thought I was going to die,” she explained), a statement that has elicited little sympathy on the part of journalists, who write callous headlines like, “Does Natalie Portman weight loss mean Oscar gold?” No wonder there are so many scenes of her alone, picking at a loose piece of skin or afraid to look in a bathroom mirror, all of it taking place in cold, hard rooms. Want to read a brilliant, almost prose-poem piece on this film? Take a look at Kartina Richardson’s essay at Mirror on Black Swan, women, and bathroom mirrors (I can only admire the flow of good writing). As much as I watched this film with true amazement at what Portman achieved as a dancer for this role, I have a hard time thinking of this as simply a role; it sounds as if the actress herself spiraled down into a kind of method-acting hell. Thank you, Natalie Portman, for speaking candidly about the part’s difficulties, rather than pretend her physical perfection in the part came without effort. We would do well to follow her lead rather than focus on the post-production fact that she gained back the weight and got pregnant with her fiancé, also a dancer.

With all the conflicting expectations, no wonder Portman’s character starts to split in two. Is this because she’s unhealthy or too emotionally fragile, placing too many demands on herself? No, it’s because other people do, too. She’s perfect — the perfect daughter, a perfect dancer — but she’s not sexy enough to be the Black Swan. “When I look at you, all I see is the White Swan,” her director Tomas tells her. “Yes, you’re beautiful, restrained, graceful. Perfect casting. But the Black Swan … it’s a hard fucking job to dance both.” He patronizingly advises her to masturbate — to loosen up, to seduce him and the audience as the Black Swan. Yet when she does, she falls from grace as a perfect daughter; she looks with new eyes at her little-girl bedroom, all pink and white and stuffed animals and a ballerina music box. In the process she starts to see another version of herself on the sidewalk, on the train, in the mirror. It goes without saying that the demands of heightened sexuality don’t loosen her up at all; they start to destroy her. I find it apt and poetic that if you google “perfect girls,” you get a whole list of porn sites.

For all of these reasons I find it impossible to view Black Swan as just a film, or a thriller, or a psycho-sexual melodrama, or as any of the other tidy descriptors used to characterize it. In fact, I find it impossible to view it as a critic — I can’t tell you whether this is a good film or whether Portman deserves the best-actress Oscar because it hits too many of my nerves. I can’t help seeing it as a fractured fairy tale with ingredients stirred in by Carl Jung, the modern modeling industry, and feminists given to telling cautionary tales. Did I “enjoy” watching it? Not in the least. Do I think it’s a historic visual testament to the tolls of Effortless Perfectionism? Oh my god, yes. It’s the return of the repressed, this film. Of course, I also believe that some viewers will be distracted by the lesbian sex scene, and that my views of this film as I’ve framed them here will not be typical. But just you wait: 100 years down the line, this’ll be the film that appears in all those women’s history classes — I can only hope those future female undergrads have found a way out of the psychic prison their forebears experienced.