A criminally underappreciated pioneer of psychoanalytic theory, Sabina Spielrein was also a deeply disturbed woman who (before undergoing treatment with a fledgling Carl Jung) was racked by anxiety attacks so acute that they amounted to little less than full body convulsive seizures. So revolted was Spielrein by her own desires – especially the masochistic sexual longings which obsessed her – she had repressed them to the point that they now appeared to be (almost literally) bursting out of her body. According to medical records, she shrieked and kicked, her limbs flailing and her face contorting, as she tried, and failed, to keep herself under control. Spielrein was literally trapped within herself.
Passed from asylum to asylum, she remained a special case; unsolvable, irredeemable, apparently hopeless. Hopeless, that is, until she became a patient of Jung’s and was exposed to his use of Sigmund Feud’s methods for drawing out repressed desires. As her condition improved, the two are suspected to have engaged in a short-lived, torrid, and scandalous sexual relationship. Once “cured” (or, at least, relieved) of her afflictions, Spielrein studied to become a psychiatrist and, eventually, offered crucial insights into the destructive/transformative instinct inherent in the sexual drive (a theory much of which Freud would later appropriate and term the “death drive”). Murdered by Nazis in 1942, Spielrein has drifted into the ether, remembered by few and studied by fewer still.
At first glance Keira Knightley, among most successful actors of recent years, is a decidedly odd choice to play Sabina Spielrein. Famous for her skilful takes on mannered, mild women (with perhaps a hint of spicy fire beneath the veneer), the idea of Knightley tackling such a darkly complex role baffled many when it was first announced. But this lack of respect for her capabilities was perhaps only matched by our surprise at the degree of her commitment to this character.
In A Dangerous Method she stretches (both physically and emotionally) beyond anything we have seen from her before. “That was one of the most challenging parts of [this role],” she explained to me over coffee at the Toronto International Film Festival. “Because in the script she has a ‘hysterical fit’ and she’s ‘ravaged by tics’. You go: Okay, what’s a ‘hysterical fit’ and what ‘tics’? There was no description anywhere as to what the actual tics were. I looked at Jung’s original case notes, and again ‘her face ravaged by tics’ but not specifically what they were.”
Left to invent them herself, Knightley decided to ask psychiatrists what they had seen patients do that they’d described as ‘tics’. “They said it could be anything because they can be completely different for different people. But, they were talking about all of them as sort of trying to get pent up emotion out.”
Again, left with little to go on, Knightley turned to Spielrein’s own diaries for inspiration. “There were a couple of words in one of her diary entries which caught my attention because she described herself as like a demon or a dog. […] I thought that was pretty huge if that’s the way you see yourself. I sort of thought it was quite important somewhere to reflect that. Then I thought, Okay, maybe we can do that with the tic. Maybe we might start from that point.”
In her hands, Spielrein’s ‘tics’ are violent physical events. The dominant aspect of her performance of these fits is an amazing contortion of her bottom jaw, a trick that makes her mouth approximate the muzzle of a rabid dog – “an inexpensive special effect”, as director David Cronenberg has described it, which is to say no special effect at all. “There’s a release of that emotion. So I literally went into my bathroom and drew faces at myself and came up with that one. I wanted it to be as shocking as possible. I wanted it to be fucked up. So I came up with a couple of options and then got on Skype with David, and went, ‘What do you fancy?’ And he went, ‘That one!’” Unsettling, even at times painful to watch, Knightley’s vision of Spielrein in the throes of her anguish is wildly over-the-top in all the right ways (though there will be some who will see her lack of restraint as a problem, not a virtue).
Clearly, this was a role that demanded patience, thoughtful reflection, and research. “I read a biography of Jung. I read [Jung’s] “Memories, Dreams, Reflections”. I read a couple of papers that Freud and Jung had written. I read a book of Nietzsche. I read [Spielrein’s] dissertation and several other things that she wrote. There was a book that was obviously really helpful because it was called Sabina Spielrein: Forgotten Pioneer of Psychoanalysis, which was great. And, the book that the film is based on, A Most Dangerous Method. It took about four months to read it all!”
Such diligence is impressive, and goes a long way towards explaining the degree of nuance and ambiguity she was able to inject into the role. Perhaps more than this, however, it is Knightley’s deeply-felt connection to this story that comes across as we talk. “I don’t know,” she begins. “I mean, there’s so much. I mean, it’s pretty tragic when you actually look at the case notes and the background, the family history. I mean, it’s pretty dark stuff. I find her incredibly inspiring because the idea that you’ve got somebody who is so sick at the beginning and so completely trapped within herself…
She’s been chucked out of tons of asylums beforehand. People had completely given up hope for her and she’d given up hope in herself. She literally thought that she was possessed that she was demonic… The idea that you have that person and through analysis she can be pulled out of herself, and not only that but her intellect can be stimulated, she can become functional within society and become a psychoanalyst in her own right and come up with ideas that inspire both Freud and Jung… It’s an extraordinarily inspiring story, I found.”
The film is demanding of Knightley not only because it relies on such a densely layered performance, but also because it features several scenes in which she engages in sado-masochist sexual activities, both alone and with Fassbender’s Jung. These are intimate, sensual, but also highly complex sex scenes – much is revealed through the way these characters seek pleasure. It is, overall, a frankly sexual film – as it must be, given the subject matter and figures involved – and Cronenberg does not shy away from the raw physicality of the sex acts he presents. How does he get so much out of his performers?
“He’s incredibly respectful. He always says ‘I never want anybody to do anything that they’re not comfortable with’, which is amazing because you equally feel completely supported. Nobody’s being used. Everybody understands exactly what’s going on. It’s about the creative, collaborative vibe he creates which is probably equally why his films can go so far and people do go so far when they’re working with him because you feel so much a part of the creative process. You also completely understand exactly what the point of everything is, whereas some directors are much more dictatorial, which can be very difficult. He’s dictatorial in his own way and he gets exactly what he wants, but it’s through collaboration and creative understanding.”
Though the film will likely be sold as the story of two towering (male) figures of the 20th century (Viggo Mortensen’s Freud and Michael Fassbender’s Jung), A Dangerous Method is undergirded by Knightley’s Spielrein as she confronts and then manages the psychosexual turmoil she has buried inside herself. “The story centers around Jung,” she explains “and it centers around that relationship [between Jung and Freud]. Yes it’s fascinating that she comes into the center of it – but it’s not an entire biopic about her. I think actually originally [screenwriter] Christopher Hampton was thinking about writing just a biopic about her but then he couldn’t figure out how you could get all three of them into it. So you have to take Jung as the center.”
Although she demurs, to my eyes it is Spielrein’s emergence as a fully functional and confident (not to mention brilliant and influential) woman that constitutes the film’s true narrative (and emotional) arc. Moreover, the fact that we watch as a grotesque vision of “Keira Knightly” (with all those jutting appendages and that elastic jawbone) moves toward a comforting and reassuring vision of “Keira Knightly” (prim and period-costumed, a picture of elegance) only deepens this effect.
“I think it’s one of the wonderful things about David [Cronenberg]. It’s what makes him a great film director. It’s the imagination to go, okay that’s that actress and she’s been in that but I can see from that that she can also go there and I trust that she’ll be able to do that. That’s what people within this creative industry are about. Actors can change. That’s the point of them. Very often I think people kind of go, ‘Oh yeah I’ve seen her to that before, so therefore we’re going to ask her to do that again’.”
In the end, what appeared at first like it might have been some kind of stunt casting – bringing on the star of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise to play the cerebral masochist prodigy who inspires the best work of Jung and Freud – had wound up looking nothing short of brilliant.