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If it seems ludicrous to talk about Keira Knightley moving into a new phase of her career at the ripe old age of 26, it’s nonetheless true. Knightley was thrust into international stardom as an actress, model, cover girl and celebrated beauty at an extraordinarily young age; she was 13 when she played the Decoy Queen to Natalie Portman’s Queen Amidala in “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace,” and 17 when she starred in both “Bend It Like Beckham” and the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie. Ever since then, Knightley has been a polarizing pop-culture figure, with millions of fans and seemingly just as many detractors. She has been promoted by lad-mags like Maxim or FHM as an object of fantasy and attacked by some feminists and Fleet Street tabloids, for essentially the same reasons: She is skinny and striking, she emanates poshness and upper-class privilege, she became very famous very young for reasons that had little to do with her acting.
But whether or not you believe Knightley was a competent actress at the beginning of her career, she is most definitely one now. Don’t take my word for it; put aside your preconceptions and consider her films since she walked away from the “Pirates” franchise — and, for all practical purposes, from big-budget Hollywood movies — in 2007: “Atonement,” “Silk,” “The Edge of Love,” “The Duchess,” “Last Night” and her heartbreaking performance in last year’s “Never Let Me Go,” which probably deserved an Oscar nomination it didn’t receive. (Her lone nomination came for “Pride & Prejudice” in 2006, and let’s table that debate for another time.) That’s a highly uneven list of movies, and I won’t claim that Knightley has an unerring instinct for picking winners. But she’s trying to carve out a new path in more idiosyncratic fare, and she displays more dramatic reach in each of those roles than in her entire career up to that point.
If you haven’t seen all those films (and not many people have), just go see Knightley as Sabina Spielrein, the mysterious woman who comes between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) in the “intellectual ménage à trois” of director David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method.” (That movie has its United States premiere this week at the New York Film Festival, and opens in theaters next month.) Working with the meticulous and demanding Canadian filmmaker and two of the most acclaimed male actors of our time was surely its own kind of validation. But Knightley more than holds her own playing the Russian Jewish émigré who was Jung’s first analytic patient, then his mistress and collaborator. She later became a therapist in her own right, and helped shape Freud’s notion of the relationship between Eros, the sexual urge, and Thanatos, the death wish.
Spielrein was also the first prominent masochist in the psychoanalytic literature, and perhaps the first woman in history to articulate a desire to be spanked or beaten as an extension of “normal” sexuality. (One should be cautious about such proclamations; the Marquis de Sade predates her by more than a century.) Knightley’s performance is both ferocious and desperate; Spielrein comes to Jung’s clinic outside Zurich in a state of near-psychotic delirium, convinced that she was possessed by a demonic spirit. But eventually the power dynamic between them begins to shift, and she seduces him into a sadomasochistic sexual relationship, along the way becoming his and Freud’s intellectual peer. Yes, you will indeed see Knightley both spanked and whipped by Michael Fassbender in this film, but Cronenberg presents their encounters more in terms of clinical compulsion than steamy spectacle.
I’ve interviewed Knightley twice, and have found her extremely sharp, in all senses of the word. This conversation occurred in an anonymous hotel meeting room in Toronto, the day after the festival premiere of “A Dangerous Method.” (She admitted to being both hung over and jetlagged.) She’s an intense and focused talker, cordial enough but not especially funny. (I maintain she was miscast in the “Pirates” movies for exactly that reason.) Once she understood that I wasn’t going to ask her questions about her weight — she is undeniably thin but looked healthy to me — or her sex life, she warmed up considerably, and talked fluently about the history of psychoanalysis, Wagner’s Ring Cycle, masturbation and the ethics of filming a spanking scene.
You know, Keira, an hour after I saw the film, it occurred to me that Sabina Spielrein was a legitimate feminist hero. In terms of her intellect, in terms of her sexuality, in terms of what she represented, in every way. She should be on a postage stamp! Did you think about it that way?
Only latterly, actually. I didn’t really think of it from the feminist point of view when I was doing it. I should have. I don’t know why I sort of missed that. I was so busy trying to figure out what the fuck was going on in her head that I didn’t really see it from the outside point of view. But you’re absolutely right. I mean, what she achieved was absolutely extraordinary. And then there’s the fact that she was lost. She was working in a world where, you know — Freud gave her a footnote in one of his papers, but Jung absolutely didn’t.
No mention whatsoever.
Nothing at all. And the papers she wrote were absolutely extraordinary. I think she was the first woman to write a dissertation on schizophrenia. She was an extraordinary feminist hero, as you say. Or she should be. I don’t know whether she would have seen herself in those terms either, to be honest.
Probably not. There’s also the factor that she basically disappeared into the Soviet Union later in life.
She was in the Soviet Union, and then she was killed by the Nazis. So a lot of her work was lost. I’m telling you this now, and I’m probably going to get it wrong, but she opened up these really progressive child psychoanalytic centers — the white nurseries, or something like that — but at a certain point Stalin banned all psychoanalysis and it all stopped anyway. She was living in Rostov and kept on doing it in an underground way, but it had been banned. So a lot of her stuff disappeared because of the Communist period, but then, of course, because she was killed.
Did the Nazis kill her because they knew who she was?
I don’t think so. Again, I’m not completely sure about that, but she was rounded up with a lot of Jews who were living in Rostov and then shot. So I don’t know that it had anything to do with being a psychoanalyst. It’s an absolutely extraordinary story. I mean, a completely tragic one, but also one that I found incredibly inspiring. She was so troubled, so ill. They had totally lost hope, and I think she had lost hope. Before she got to the Bürgholzli institute [Jung's clinic], she’d been thrown out of asylums, because they said, “There’s no way, there’s nothing we can do.” So the idea that you’ve got somebody from that stage, who literally believed that she’d been possessed by a devil, and that through analysis you can pull out that intellectual side of her and stimulate it to the extent that she came up with ideas that influenced Freud and Jung, whether they gave her credit for it or not — it’s an extraordinary thing.
And she ends up getting totally scrubbed out of the picture.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s very much a story of its time. I don’t think women were allowed in higher education in Russia at that time, which was why a lot of them ended up in Germany or Switzerland, because they were being quite progressive about women’s education. So she was given the opportunity to do that, but within that society it was still very rare for women to be taken seriously intellectually. So it’s a fascinating period — and you’re right about that: It is once again the men keeping the women down!
From the first second we see her in the film, it’s pretty intense. She’s carried from a carriage having some kind of seizure, being restrained by two men, howling and grunting. Was all that in the script?
I mean, yes and no. In the script, it said: “Has hysterical fit and is ravaged by tics.” And you kind of go, OK, but what does that mean? So I read an awful lot trying to find descriptions of tics or why they happened. Even in Jung’s case notes for her, he didn’t describe what it was. He said her face was ravaged by them, but didn’t describe what they were. So I spoke to a couple of analysts, trying to figure out what it would be, and they basically said it could have been anything, tics come in all kinds of ways. So I watched a documentary on Tourette’s, to try to get some ideas from that. I asked David, “OK, do you want it in the body so you can shoot around it if it gets too much?” And he said, “No, I definitely want it in the face.”
So then I found an excerpt from her diaries in which she describes herself as a dog or a demon, and I thought, that’s such a fucking horrendous description, you know, to see yourself like that. That’s not in the script, and I thought that was incredibly important, to show that physically in some way. She was going through a shocking internal struggle, so I wanted it to be shocking on the outside too.
That’s what you’re doing with your jaw! That’s exactly it — she’s acting like a dog.
Well, I spoke to a psychoanalyst about what tics were, what they meant. Because she was masturbating a lot, and I wanted to know what the reason for that was, or the kind of compulsive sexuality, what the reason for that was. And this analyst said, “Well, it’s about trying to release energy, trying to get it out in some way.” So I thought that was interesting physically. I sat in front of my mirror for a couple of hours pulling faces at myself. Then I got on Skype with David and said, “OK, I’ve got a couple of options, which one do you like?” Right away he went, “That jaw thing, that’s great!”
I honestly wondered whether you had dislocated your jaw. It looks painful.
It looks like that, doesn’t it? It’s just trying to get at that demonic, animalistic thing. And to look as shocking as possible.
It works! Was that a state you could just get into on the set, or did you have to remain in character like that?
I’d sort of been working on it, on the text or the background reading, for about four months beforehand. We didn’t rehearse any of it, just me doing my own stuff. So I’d planned it. You’re playing mad, whatever that means, and the outside world may see it as illogical and totally crazy, but there was complete logic — as much as it’s a terrifying illness on the inside — to the way she behaved. So it was about trying to find that logic, going through the script and finding the trigger words, finding the exact moment when the tics would be triggered. That was quite interesting. So, um, yeah. [Laughter.] What was the question? Have I answered it?
Not yet. What did you do on set to get in character?
Because it was so prepared — there is an amazing thing about David’s sets. They’re so focused. It’s very quiet, it’s very collaborative, it’s incredibly supportive, but it is absolutely focused on the work. We only did one or two takes for absolutely everything, and he’s pretty much edited it in his head, so he didn’t even run the scenes all the way through. He’d go, “I know I’m only going to use the close-up for that bit, so we’re only going to run that bit.” It is an incredibly focused environment, though, so, no, I wasn’t in character the whole time, twitching! But I used music an awful lot, I was constantly listening to music and reading the stuff I’d found that was helpful. Stravinsky was used a lot, and Wagner.
I love the conversations about Wagner in the film! And that’s probably the only time I’m going to say that about a movie this year.
There’s actually very little about that in the film, but she was absolutely obsessed by [the redemptive warrior hero] Siegfried and the Ring Cycle, and it is fascinating reading. She had lots of dreams about it. She saw Jung as Siegfried, or thought Siegfried was going to be the son she would give him. She was really obsessed with it. I did listen to the whole Ring Cycle, that was really interesting, and I went to see some of it in Cologne.
To me, the Wagner stuff is like an aspect of her brilliance and an aspect of her madness, at the same time.
Absolutely, and that’s what I found so interesting about her. It’s so interlinked, the madness and the brilliance, as I think they so often are. Trying to figure out exactly when it turns into something more obsessive, something crazy — I don’t like the word but I don’t have another one — that was really interesting.
So let’s talk about the sex scenes in this movie, if we may. That’s certainly going to get a lot of attention, because you and Michael Fassbender are playing one of the first famous S/M relationships. It’s restrained and not all that salacious, but there’s no denying some people may find it arousing …
Yeah. I don’t know if they will, though. I mean, it’s certainly not shot like that, and that was one of the reasons why I thought I was all right doing that. I didn’t want it to be sexy, in that kind of voyeuristic way. David was very clear about that, it has to be a reflection of that brutality, that side of her. It has to be part of the character, and he wanted it to be clinical. Particularly in the age of the Internet and everything, you have to ask a lot of questions about whether it’s relevant, what the downsides and upsides are of doing something like that. I nearly turned it down because of that, and it wasn’t until I’d spoken to David to ask, “OK, what is this, and how are we doing it?” that I actually went, all right, I can do that as long as it’s not a sexy spanking scene.
At the same time, she was a sexual revolutionary, wasn’t she? To be able to “come out” about such a forbidden desire. It wasn’t something people talked about at all, except in a pornographic context. Certainly not in the context of being a legitimate sexual expression.
No. And part of the reason for hysteria among women — it was declining at that point, I guess — but it was only amongst women, and the thing with her was that nobody had explained the facts of life to her. She was an adult, but nobody quite knows when she was actually told about sex. It could have been after a lot of the analysis with Jung had already happened. She came from a family where any physical feeling among the girls was seen as being a sin, and being the devil taking you over. It’s an insane thing to think about! So yes, absolutely, it was completely revolutionary in that way.
She was very clearly a masochist, but speaking to psychoanalysts, they tell you that sadomasochism is always a circle, so the masochist is always looking for a sadist and will force people into that role, and even become the sadist themselves in order to form that circle. So I thought that was really interesting, the manipulation is strangely powerful. At the same time as she plays the victim, she’s creating these situations and manipulating them. There are these complex things, these opposites at work, which made an interesting dynamic.
Right. Well, there’s a psychological truism in the world of S/M that holds that the person who’s being spanked or tied up or whatever is actually the person in control of the situation. It strikes me that that’s how you guys played it.
Yeah, that’s the decision we took with it, and to me that’s more interesting than the other way around.
It’s never clear whether or not Jung is actually into it, or if she’s kind of dragging him along.
Yeah, it is ambiguous and we thought that was quite important. It was her thing, and not necessarily his. In all the research that I did, I’ve never seen that he was especially into that, although he was a very strong and controlling person, so it could have taken that path.
It seems to me, at least from the film, that he was in love with her but felt ashamed about many aspects of the relationship: the adultery, the S/M stuff, and not least of all the way he betrayed her.
I think there was definitely shame over the way he handled the whole situation and the fact that he denied it. He never mentions her, and beyond that 1913 point, she isn’t anywhere. Let alone any of her work being recognized, he doesn’t mention her at all, which is quite strange in itself, given that she was such a huge part of that period of his life.
Someone asked me an interesting question after we watched the film. On the first day, when she’s howling and seemingly inarticulate, Jung sits down behind her in a chair and starts to ask her questions, and she responds right away. Did that really happen? And how could it have worked so quickly?
I don’t think anybody had ever asked the questions before. That’s literally what happened, it’s all written down. Jung chose her very specifically. They knew she was frighteningly bright and was already interested in medicine and science. He picked her out. But I think you’re right, nobody had ever spoken to her about these things, it was completely revolutionary. So the idea of being asked about these things and not simply being told that you were a lunatic, you were sick, was probably something that would make you go [exhalation of breath]. You speak to people who have been analyzed, and in the same way that interviews can very easily become that kind of confessional thing, it’s a very weird experience when somebody actually asks you your opinion. Very strange things can happen.
It’s like he saw her as a potential intellectual partner — and maybe also as a potential lover — right away.
You know, Freud said that analysis wouldn’t work with stupid people, with people who hadn’t had an education. I don’t think that’s still what people think. But it’s what he said.
“A Dangerous Method” premieres this week at the New York Film Festival and opens Nov. 23 in major cities.