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Alt text for the image, e.g. “The Mona Lisa” David Cronenberg’s new movie A Dangerous Method is terrific – tidy, devoid of the maniacal attention-seeking that I found distracting in Eastern Promises, and best of all, unpredictable. And the lion’s share of its spontaneity comes from Keira Knightley’s performance as Sabina Spielrein.

Spielrein was a pioneering female psychologist in the first half of the 20th century, before being persecuted by Nazis; but at 19, she was Carl Jung’s first one-on-one patient. A Russian victim of child abuse, she displayed volatile symptoms of schizophrenic – Jung’s word was “voluptuous” – behavior. His handling of the case turned her life around in a big way, which is to say she got better, enrolled in med school, and also eventually became his lover. For the movie’s first fifteen or so minutes, she’s bonkers – a volatile zombie held hostage by incorrigible feelings of shame and desire. Her early lines  are pitiful yammers and blurts, stoking a mordant fascination for both Jung (Michael Fassbender) and the audience: you can’t look, but you sure can’t look away.

Everyone knows Cronenberg has lost interest in rubber, and spends more energy lately focusing on the human face. At the risk of actually giving a shit about the Oscars, I’d say Knightley is a no-brainer for Best Actress; she made me wince, shudder and squirm from her first appearance, and even as a sophisticated lady-shrink in later years, she looks/talks like her brain might blow out at any moment. Many reviews seem to think that Knightley should settle down a little. To me, her Spielrein isn’t just raving: she’s also incredibly sensitive, malevolent, and confused. (In this movie, as James Ellroy said, “closure is bullshit”.)

Speaking more anecdotally: multiple acquaintances of mine have claimed, without seeing A Dangerous Method, that Knightley is “too pretty” – that phrase specifically – to handle a character like this. For all I know, having a bona fide Hot Chick onboard may have helped Cronenberg get the movie financed, but I suspect this is the type of thinking that makes it hard for movie stars – particularly women – to get legitimately challenging parts. Getting “important” roles still seems fairly easy. The longest takes belong to Knightley, suggesting considerable trust – and fun – between director and actress.

You also wouldn’t know that from the studio’s PR; the trailer seems to be positing Spielrein as a crazy-ass bitch who gets between Freud and Jung’s fraternity. Two popular, officially-circulated promotional stills suggest her as a porcelain-perfect supermodel begging for (here, herehere, here, here, here, here, here herehere), or alternately recovering from (here, here, here) Michael Fassbender. A handful chose to focus more Jung and/or Freud, (here, here, here, here), whose star power is tremendous but who is nevertheless a second-stringer in the movie’s plot. Maybe Sony Pictures Classics is manufacturing “sexy Spielrein” costumes for Halloween 2012?

It’s not that the marketeers should be aggressively broadcasting Knightley’s “ugly” expressions, exactly; studios don’t normally opt to promote the image of a tear-stained leading man either. But then again, her kabuki face is the movie’s most resonant motif; after all, nobody goes to see Transformers for Shia LeBeaouf. Whatever icky, identifiable id the advertisers are downplaying, it’s ironically the spur of Jung and Spielrein’s relationship in the movie. Which is important, because rather than some corny Episode I of psychoanalysis, Cronenberg has made a really touching character drama about Spielrein’s twin trajectories: one as his patient-cum-colleague, the other as the love of his life.