An interesting essay over at Fandor.com comparing two stage adaptations being released this year, Carnage and A Dangerous Method (The Ides of March and War Horse are two other prominent stage productions to be brought to film this year). I agree with the writer who says that the trick in making Carnage is successful is choosing the right actors. Polanski, I think, did a marvelous job as director hemming in the story. At any rate, the subject of Keira Knightley in A Dangerous Method is brought up:
Knightley has taken a lot of undeserved flack for the extremity of her performance in the early scenes of A Dangerous Method, when her character is manically all-over-the-place. Her sexually unhinged Sabina often falls into a jutting mannerism with her chin when she’s really unsettled, a bold choice on Knightley’s part; it looks like she’s chosen an animal of some kind as a pattern for Sabina’s physical behavior, and she goes all-out with this choice. As someone with more than a passing acquaintance with the mentally disturbed, all I can say is that Knightley’s chin mannerism here is exactly the kind of protective physical thing that people who are clinically ill often cling to, and it is also exactly the kind of thing that actors shy away from when they are playing mentally disturbed characters because it is wildly unflattering.
Knightley has made no impression on me at all in her diaphanous British leading lady roles, but as Sabina she creates a formidably exciting female sexual id as this girl remarkably comes into her own, eventually becoming a gifted analyst. Part of the success of Knightley’s work here is the husky, accented voice she uses, the voice of a super-smart Russian Jewish woman whose every utterance is a challenge of some kind. Cronenberg might have protected Knightley more in her breakdown scene with Jung where Sabina confesses that she liked being hit by her father; he might have even played the whole scene from Jung’s seated-behind-her point-of-view, so that we only heard that voice of hers as her back convulsed. But he otherwise supports her performance throughout with his camera placement and cutting.
Sabina is the true lead of the movie: its conscience, its brain, its heart, and its tempting body. In the scenes where Jung spanks Sabina, she loves it when he is “ferocious” with her, for Sabina sees sex as destruction. Sex, of course, is never too arousing in a Cronenberg movie; he’s always too interested in bodily decay for that, the weirdness of skin, orifices and fluids, so that the strongest image in A Dangerous Method is a close shot of Sabina’s bloodstained dress after Jung has taken her virginity. Cronenberg lingers so long on this blood stain that we can see how wet it still is in the light, and it’s clear that Sabina sees the stain as crucial evidence for her own ideas about sexuality.
Keira Knightley is taking a major risk with her portrayal of Sabina in A Dangerous Method but in so doing she is illustrating a willingness to let go of the typecasting she’s slid right into: no one looks better in Jane Austen than Knightley – a heartstopping, Audrey Hepburn beauty whose “place” has been set from the first moment we saw that face. But here, she’s not playing that girl — like most actresses, and actors, who work with David Cronenberg, she’s opened the door to what lies beneath. It’s ironic, since the film itself is about a time in history when women weren’t allowed to think about, much less express, what they were feeling/hiding. This is what makes Knightley such a good choice to play Sabina — she is sort of living out in her career what the play is about. That’s why it’s interesting to see her set loose the straps and really go for it. She looks grotesque, indeed. Imagine, Keira Knightley looking grotesque. But if you’re a woman, raise your hand if your sick of women always having to look good and behave themselves?
Knightley’s willingness to let go in this film remind me of Kate Winslet in Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke, which I consider to be Winslet’s best. Only in Carnage, when she spews chunky vomit all over Jodie Foster’s art books, do we remember the Winslet in her early career, before she too began playing hemmed in, pretty leading ladies. It’s been a while since the Kate Winslet in Holy Smoke, Jude the Obscure and Heavenly Creatures revealed herself, but how nice to see her back, however briefly.
Melissa McCarthy is doing what no actress has done in quite a while: she’s taking the rules laid out for fat women in our society and upending them. This isn’t about “fat acceptance,” but about the notion that fat men can be funny and vulgar and sloppy on screen but women can’t. Women are supposed to hide their bodies and live in shame if they’re fat, so why on earth would they ever think of being funny? Even on Saturday Night Live going back to the 1970s and all of that cocaine to stay thin, women usually fare better in Hollywood by staying in their good and proper place. And yet, Melissa McCarthy, known to most of us as the affable best friend of Lorelei Gilmore on The Gilmore Girls says, in one movie and on one appearance on Saturday Night Live – manages to access not just a void where fat women rarely dare to tread, but also to say women are allowed to be gross on occasion, too. And not only are they still funny while doing so but they’re funny without the added caveat of being a woman.
Women in comedies are allowed to be funny if they’re also pretty, or, at the very least, be thin. This is not to launch into a tirade of health versus non-health or who’s a role model and who isn’t or who is going to die first and who isn’t – just to say that Melissa McCarthy wasn’t just the “funny fat girl.” She was one of the funniest characters on screen in any film, male or female.
What McCarthy did on Saturday Night Live this past Saturday was also beyond the realm of what we women are told we can and can’t do. Like her character in Bridesmaids, McCarthy made fun of the stereotype of the overtly sexual fat girl — yet somehow, though the rules of society tell us we should be disgusted by her, her charm won out in the end. In her characters, I think, she finds truth. It’s more funny to hear her talk about how painful her life in high school was, as she does near the end of Bridesmaids, than to see her say she can lift her leg all the way over her head (also funny).
Knightley and McCarthy found the truth in their characters, which is what motivates what they do physically but both of them engage their bodies in ways we just aren’t used to – and they couldn’t be more opposite in type.
Oscar voters, it’s been said, aren’t inclined towards comedy, which puts McCarthy at a slight disadvantage until you actually watch her performance. It’s funny, yes, but there’s depth to it. It’s every bit as new and unique as Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda and yet, because the Bridesmaids crew are mostly American and not British it is written off, just as every other comedy that samples in vulgarity usually is.
Knightley, additionally, it’s been said that — and something in me puckers when I hear this — it “might be too much for Oscar voters to handle.” That question always leads me to think, “who are these crybabies?” If enough American moviegoers can love Bridesmaids enough to push it over the $150 million mark, who are Academy voters to recoil in horror at something that goes beyond the boundaries of acceptable behavior?
The funny part is, Knightley’s performance truly grows in every scene after that first one. It’s set up to try to give us an idea of what it was like to have, what they called, hysteria back then before the “talking cure” was put in place. Women, so Mr. Cronenberg tells me, were revered as untouchable goddesses who weren’t really supposed to express themselves sexually — pregnancy was hidden away and upper class women were not expected to breastfeed – Cronenberg, it’s worth mentioning, makes use of all of that. Eventually, and on some women the frustration of the time, of not being able to name what was wrong with them, manifested itself in severe ticks and spasms. According to Cronenberg, as far as Knightley goes, and she goes far, they could have made it a lot more severe.
For me, that was one of the things about the movie that not only makes it good, but it ties it to other Cronenberg films – the physical and the sexual constantly doing battle.
Of the two women, who has the better chance at a nomination? Keira Knightley for lead, McCarthy for supporting, or both?