FYC: Best Actress - Keira Knightley, “A Dangerous Method”

Keira Knightley is one of the more widely disliked young actresses working today, I suspect due equally to the fact that she is stunningly attractive and that she has tended to play a similar kind of superior, posh English person. I have never shared this particular prejudice - I think she’s quite charming in the first Pirates of the Caribbean and very good in Atonement and Never Let Me Go - but I never gave her quite the credence I have given to the likes of, say, Carey Mulligan, whose prodigious talent and range has been evident even from her still-short resume. Keira Knightley does a thing with her lips, a kind of sneer, that is very convincing and also not the kind of thing that people who are not superior English sorts of people do. She simply never seemed to have the kind of chameleonic quality of, say, a Ryan Gosling, a Michael Fassbender, a Nicole Kidman. There was something consistently recognizable about her.

A Dangerous Method is a game-changer in Knightley’s career. Her performance as Sabina Spielrein, the young woman who began as a patient of Carl Jung’s, became his mistress, and wound up conferring with Freud on her own psychoanalytic work, is a revelation. Gone are any and all traces of those familiar characters and mannerisms. Sabina is not an elevated character but one who, having been literally dragged through the mud, is altogether too real - or would be if she were not so utterly captivating, and ultimately winning. (Kartina Richardson has written a brilliant piece on the subject of Knightley’s, and by extension Sabina’s, sexuality at the New Inquiry.) The strength of Knightley’s performance comes through not only in the scenes depicting Sabina’s psychotic breakdown and recovery but also in the calmer moments that come later in the film, when she has a better grasp of herself and her milieu. That is, she is a very different person than the Knightley we have seen before not just when she is forcing her jaw out, but indeed when she is simply watching Jung speak. We get the strong sense of the myriad thoughts going through her head - and also the feeling that those thoughts are fascinating.

A Dangerous Method is a deeply problematic film. Though Viggo Mortensen’s Sigmund Freud is an utter delight, Jung (Michael Fassbender) is a flat cipher, underwritten and consequently underperformed. The Jung described in John Kerr’s book, A Most Dangerous Method, upon which the play and then screenplay of A Dangerous Method were based, reveals a far more complicated and interesting figure than the version who made it to the screen. We have little access to his emotional state throughout the film and so a late expression of anguish feels disingenuous. The screenplay, which begins with great promise, peters out in its last act. And yet, in spite of all this, I enjoyed the film enormously. I liked it very much, possibly more than it deserved. Sabina Spielrein was a fascinating woman, and the character has the benefit of being the only one of the three of them who seems to be ascending as the film ends. Though they would both live longer than she, Jung and Freud seem to be falling, both professionally and personally, into the deep pits of their own terrors; it is Sabina who has overcome her demons (well enough, anyway). The shrieking creature of the film’s beginning is long gone, and in her place we find a self-possessed, intelligent, ambitious woman. It is to Knightley’s credit that no beat of this journey feels false, and that she manages to portray a woman with such a particular, unique inner force so convincingly. Hers is my favorite female performance of the year.

FYC: Best Actress - Anna Paquin, “Margaret”

The story behind Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, shot in 2005 but only released this fall, isĀ  long, convoluted, almost impenetrable. There were disagreements between the studio and the director, the ensuing legal battles took years, and the version of the film that was - extremely briefly - released this year was the producer’s cut. After Fox Searchlight botched the release - there were apparently not enough screenings for critics or groups like the guilds and the Academy - the internet took charge of the situation, spearheaded by a number of British critics who championed the movie as an almost-lost masterpiece, by pushing #TeamMargaret on Twitter. The extremely gratifying result of this effort is that the film will be released again in the United States, supposedly in more cities than just New York and Los Angeles. It began screening again at one of Manhattan’s tiniest and oddest independent cinemas, Cinema Village, last Friday.

The film, alas, has been irreparably damaged by the overly protracted post-production process: by around the two-thirds mark, it has begun to disintegrate, and continues to do so until it’s over. What, exactly, the movie is about, and what material is important to the illumination of that elusive quantity, is not entirely clear. But it’s a movie that deserves to be seen. If Lonergan’s grasp of the macro structure of the film is shaky and winds up, ultimately, bungled, he almost makes up for it with his extraordinary command of the immediate moment, the individual scene. The exchanges between the characters are always sharp and realistic, if not necessarily salient. Jordan Hoffman hits on the matter exactly by comparing it to jazz: “unpredictable, uncontrollable, unrepeatable.”

Yet despite all this morass of brilliance there is one element of the film consistently propelling it forward - pushing, maybe, at the material, at the space, clawing its way out. That force is Anna Paquin, whose performance as Lisa Cohen, a young woman who is the equally spoiled and intelligent product of the Upper West Side, is an incendiary, transcendent thing. Lisa witnesses - and, in fact, helps cause - a horrific traffic accident that results in the death of a pedestrian, and spends the rest of the film trying to figure out what to do about it, both on a practical and a metaphorical level. She wants, very badly, for there to be somebody on whom she can pin a kind of conclusive blame, and it would be convenient if that person were not herself. Or perhaps not. She takes a kind of agonized pleasure in her trauma, exploding it to a positively operatic scale (the opera does in fact recurs as a motif in the film), in the way that most teenagers do. She feels her own pain and suffering so potently that she is willing to use or enrage or please everybody else in her life in whatever way makes her feel better, or rather makes her feel significant. She very much wants life to be significant, and her own life most of all. It’s the tragedy of her, and of the film, that although it is, in a way, it’s also not at all.

We can’t quite blame her, though, and that’s due largely to Paquin’s dexterity as an actor. She is hyper-articulate and hyper-sensitive; we can see clearly in her face that she cannot help but feel everything too well. She reflects with an eerie accuracy the self-absorbed nature of teenage existence, the way that everything is either magnificent or horrific, the lack of comfort in one’s own skin, the sudden perturbing onset of sex as a fact of life and a tool to be used to get your way. The desperate quest to figure out who we are and who we are going to be is the inescapable underlying fact of adolescence and the movie externalizes Lisa’s, but it is really Paquin who brings Lisa’s malaise to the fore. The world may not be particularly concerned with Lisa’s emotional crisis, but the audience is. For as long as you are in the theater, there are only two people who understand and have lived through adolescence: Lisa, and yourself.

2011 in Film: FYC: WEEKEND, in all categories

Weekend is without doubt one of the best movies you (probably) haven’t seen this year, because you almost certainly didn’t get the chance. At its peak it was playing in twenty-six whole theaters, and its total domestic gross was a whopping $469,947. Nothing about these figures is particularly surprising, as Weekend is a gay love story featuring some of the most frank depictions of sex I’ve seen on film - it was, in fact, released unrated. You have to imagine that writer and director Andrew Haigh knew what to expect. Midway through the film, one of his protagonists, Glen (Chris New), talks about the art project he’s working on - compiling recordings of gay men talking about their sexual experiences - and bitterly comments that no straight people are going to be interested in attending a show compiling his work. It’s difficult not to read the conversation as a wry, self-reflexive comment by Haigh about the film: no, he seems to be saying, you’re not going to want to see this. But you should, no matter whether you’re straight, gay, or anywhere in-between or outside those labels. Weekend is a small masterpiece and serves as a kind of watershed moment for gay cinema - or, at least, it would, if anybody saw it.

Many critics have rightly drawn parallels between Weekend and Before Sunrise: just as Julie Delply and Ethan Hawke met, became infatuated, and were forced to separate the next day in that film, Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen meet, become infatuated, and are forced to separate not one day but a weekend later, when Glen must leave to enroll in an art course in America. The tropes at play here are both familiar and utterly new: part of what makes Weekend so revolutionary is its very lack of artistic or structural rebellion. Russell and Glen fall in love in much the same way that many screen couples have over the years; their story is as touching and lovely as the stories it references and calls back to, and even if all the little details of their interactions are perfectly naturalistic and idiosyncratic to Nottingham in 2011, they are participating in a grand tradition of not-quite realistic romances. They also happen to be gay men.

Weekend would be an exceptional film even if it were the story of a heterosexual couple falling in love: Haigh’s screenplay and direction are exceptionally sensitive, perceptive, compelling, funny; the actors are extraordinary. But it crosses a line, transcends from the exceptional to the important (though I acknowledge there is something odious in labeling any work of art “important”), in its depiction of the way gay men live now. Neither Russell nor Glen can ignore the fact that he is gay (though it seems, sometimes, like Russell might like to), and so they talk to each other about their gayness, about their coming out experiences, about marriage, about whether they want to be included in society or to voluntarily stand apart from it. The film, then, acknowledges what it is about: not simply people in love but gay men in love with each other. It would feel insincere if the characters’ sexuality was simply a non-issue: it is, alas, an issue. But neither does the film become a Gay Drama; if Russell and Glen are tortured they are tortured in the same ways that all of us are. They bear the scars of bad parents, bad boyfriends, of loneliness and uncertainty. They are, in the end, just regular blokes. In a way they aren’t, quite - they’re gay - but in all the ways that matter, they are just people in love, who don’t know quite what to do about it. There isn’t much more universal than that.

Weekend can be watched on Netflix Instant.

Announcement: FYC

All right, dudes, I mentioned this in my post on The Help the other day, but here is an official post about it: I am going to write up some short(er) posts in the coming week(s) about films or particular elements of films that were exceptional this year and that aren’t getting what I think is the appropriate recognition. In other words, although I love The Artist absolutely to pieces, I’m not going to write about it, because it’s in all the Oscar conversations and is going to get (and has already gotten, elsewhere) a slew of nominations. I want to wait on a Top 10 list until next month, when I’ve had a chance to catch up on some films I’ve missed (though obviously I can’t see everything, I can come pretty damn close).

The first one is coming up straightaway! The film is available on Netflix Instant, and happens to be one of my very favorites of the year, so consider it a Christmas gift from me to you. Happy holidays, guys. Thanks, as always, for reading. <3