Give That Girl an Oscar

I’m really hoping Keira Knightly is named for her role in A Dangerous Method when Oscar nominations are announced today. In this latest David Cronenberg film she plays a raging and distracted mental patient, who, when introduced to a calm empathetic listener sitting in a chair behind her, recovers clarity of mind and goes on to graduate from medical school and become a psychotherapist herself. (OK it’s also true that this calm empathetic listener sleeps with her too, then puts her aside when it suits him, but she expresses her feelings on these events in one blindingly fast three-second gesture that made the audience I was part of gasp with surprise.)

But this is Jung and his onetime mentor Freud we’re dealing with here, in the first decade of the last century when people were just getting the idea that they weren’t in Kansas anymore. Freud had just dropped his bombshell of a theory about the dark impulses involving sex and aggression that lurk just under the surface of our conscious thoughts – and as you can imagine, sex and aggression would rattle the teacups in any polite society back then, in those quiet years before the slaughter of World War I commenced.

I’m wondering now if Freud’s ideas didn’t take hold more easily on account of that war, which killed an entire generation of young men and exposed how thin a veneer ‘civilized’ behavior really is.

The losses from the “war to end all wars” were felt even over here in the States, however slow we were getting into it. It wasn’t just the speakeasies and the bathtub gin that made the Twenties roar, I don’t think. It was also the horror people felt after witnessing the carnage caused by trench warfare: A million casualties in the Battle of the Somme alone! They just wanted to forget it all. They roared too because Freud and his sometime protégé Jung had let this particular genie out of the bottle: no one in polite society had ever before spoken of our so-called baser impulses.
In one of his plays 200 years before, Molière satirized the class of “genteel” people who refused to use the word for ‘legs’ – too coarse! Too vivid! They wouldn’t use the word ‘teeth’ either, calling them instead ‘the furniture of the mouth.’

But Freud and Jung? They kicked all that over. They kicked it into next week as the saying goes.

The woman Keira Knightly plays was a real person named Sabina Spielrein, who suffered humiliation at the hands of her spanking-obsessed father, but then recovered just as she does in the film and contributed greatly to the understanding of our deepest impulses. (My heart squeezed shut when they rolled the credits to reveal that she and her two daughters were shot to death in a barn by SS officers. (They were Jews, as was Freud.))

What I will remember is the image of her so sharply suffering at the beginning as Keira Knightly plays her. She writhes in the arms of the hospital orderlies; extends her already long lower jaw in a simian rictus of agitation. She looks like an animal being tortured. Poor young woman! Poor all women in those days when they called our anger “hysteria” and took away our humanity. Tough century, the 20th; thank God for every Suffragette and Feminist who worked to put things right.

Anyway here’s the trailer under one last picture of our girl:

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