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Nothing like a good spanky


Keira Knightley, A Dangerous Method

Keira Knightley, A Dangerous Method

In the opening scenes of David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method we see Keira Knightley (as Sabina Spielrein) play mad. There’s no doubt about it. She’s hysterical. She bends forward at the waist, dry-retching as if she’s swallowed a wild chimpanzee. Her teeth chatter. She swims in a fishpond, cackling loudly, covered in mud, as the hospital’s male attendants prod and entice her. As the calm doctor Carl Jung applies his new method, the ‘talking cure’, she reveals very quickly that her father used to take all her clothes off (the first time when she was four) and beat her. And the revelation that fuels her sexual energies from then on? She used to like it.

(Note to self: never strip and humiliate children in case they develop serious belt fetish.)

From then on, the film ignores Spielrein (after a bit of hanky panky she is cured! she is cured!) and become a turgid account of the relationship between Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), reduced to a kind of one-upmanship of I’ll show you my dream if you show me yours. The dreams they dissect together are so obvious I’m surprised they don’t feature teeth falling out or going down steps into the basement or snakes writhing in water; you know, you’ve all had them. But these dreams are symbolic, see, with a capital S, because of the horrors that are to come (the holocaust): there’s a wave of water about to crash down.

Despite Spielrein’s brilliant intellect and challenge to the authority of Freud, she’s mainly pictured in corset (falling delicately off nipples) strapped and bent over the couch while Jung flagellates himself on all accounts. I’m not a prude. I quite like to watch. But I want to know why this turns her on. What is the connection between humiliation and sexual pleasure? What is the even deeper connection to her father? And why does Jung administering this punishment apparently offer her such freedom? Is it really her only way to connect to the world? Cronenberg ignores all of this. It’s so much easier just to film a bit of coy S+M in a mirror.

Maggie Gyllenhaal, Secretary

Maggie Gyllenhaal, Secretary

I’m trying to think of other films that employ a bit of S+M. The wonderful Secretary springs to mind, enlivened with a bit of humour and deadpan performances. Then there’s Salo (that I’ve always been meaning to watch, but the thought of it…), David Cronenberg’s own Crash (an unforgettable piece of filmmaking based on JG Ballard’s novel) and The Piano Teacher, with Isabelle Huppert’s usual knockout performance. (Serious fetishists have their own opinions, of course. See the serious discussion here.)

But look I’m no expert. The idea of masochistic sexual play makes me want to choke myself (now hang on a minute). Some may say any fiction writer in Australia is a masochist. But I think if it came to the crunch, I’d be much more interested in being a sadist. There’s a world of opportunity there.

For a more interesting look at a brilliant woman confronting mental illness, see Jane Campion’s classic biopic of Janet Frame, An Angel at My Table. Actress Kerry Fox goes inward and quiet; it’s a mesmerising performance to watch. I understand she’s not seen as an hysteric, and she doesn’t get off on S+M, but it’s an incredibly moving and powerful film, in its understated way.

Anyone into a bit of S+M? What are the most interesting examples of films and literature that explore it (you can post anonymously of course!)?

Or have you seen A Dangerous Method? What did you think of Spielrein’s character? The relationship between Freud and Jung?

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14 thoughts on “Nothing like a good spanky

  1. It’s interesting reading this post, because I can’t say I’ve seen any of these films, and then if I reflect on the notion of S&M, it’s just not within my sphere of existence. I’m sure I’ve read plenty of examples, but must choose not to remember. I ‘get’ violence and the portrayal of violence in film and literature, but don’t get sexual violence at all.

    Someone suggested on the sadomasochism forum that there is a comic element in the portrayal of S&M – and your description of Keira Knightly’s effort helps to confirm that view. I tend to agree, because if that’s the life you choose I suggest you get another one …

    • Great comment, thanks. Out of all things on screen, I find sexual violence the hardest to watch, and I often have to walk out or switch off, even if the filmmaker is doing something interesting. I agree re the comic element; sometimes when things are uncomfortable, you tend to laugh instead, as a way of pushing it away from you, rejecting it outright ( I do that in horror films a lot). Secretary is really worth seeing, though; I think you’d like it even though it’s disconcerting. Keira’s effort was unintentionally funny – though I suspect the problem lies with the director in this case.

  2. This post has me lusting to re-watch ‘Secretary’ now! Did Keira Knightley’s character make you want to slap her? I’m afraid that if I go and see this film, I’ll resent her for her hysteria, but then again – it’s got Viggo. HUBBA 🙂

    • Yeah I really enjoyed Secretary! I remember seeing it at the movies having no idea what it was going to be about (thinking I was seeing an indie romcom). Loved it. Well, yes, the strange thing is, I did want to slap her. Perhaps that was the point!

  3. Swallowed a wild chimpanzee?

    Interesting image, that had me gagging for more of your blog.

    On the subject of violence generally you’re reminding me of my reaction to A Clockwork Orange. By the standards of anything made since Pulp Fiction it was a very tame movie, and yet there’s an intimate quality to the violence (both sexual and physical) that disturbs viewers to this very day.

    Keep up the good work.

    • Yes, I agree re A Clockwork Orange. It’s more that queasy feeling you get, especially with the juxtaposition of comic and violence. And the complete absence of any (moral) feeling. I felt the same the whole way through the novel We Need to Talk about Kevin (which I thought was a masterpiece).

  4. Angela (Ms LiteraryMinded) on said:

    I found A Dangerous Method to be pretty disappointing, pretty run-of-the-mill, especially for Cronenberg. Have you seen his Dead Ringers? Now that’s much more interestingly sexy, I think, and just more interesting full stop. There was so much potential with this film, but as you said the Freud & Jung stuff lacked depth and insight. I still haven’t seen Secretary! Lots of people have told me I’d like it. Not sure what that says about me…

    • Angela (Ms LiteraryMinded) on said:

      Oh! Forgot to say I have a HUGE crush on Fassbender so the film was certainly tolerable because I got to look at him.

      • I have seen Dead Ringers. It’s just plain terrifying! A great film. Why do you like Fassbender? Just curious. I haven’t seen him in anything else – what am I missing? Secretary manages a lot of difficult themes in one film. Great.

      • Angela (Ms LiteraryMinded) on said:

        I just think Fassbender is ridiculously handsome, and he has great eyes. He’s wonderful as Rochester in Jane Eyre (a great, moody version). And seeing him full-frontally nude in Shame might have helped…

      • I’ve missed so many films in the past year or two. Shame is one I can’t wait to see. And would like to get a feel for him as an actor, so to speak.

  5. i won’t go into the SM side of this, because ‘serious fetishists have serious opinions’ just made me LOL so much indeed =D
    BUT have to eventually watch ‘dangerous methods’ for the Freud/Jung part, I love historic biopics. even if it has Keira who frankly just annoys me, again and again.
    have you seen “Hysteria”, incidently with Maggie Gyllenhaal? I watched that (w husband =) ) almost by accident not long ago and quite enjoyed it, re history, re a bit cheeky, feminism etc really good package (so is ‘Secretary’ btw what a great movie, SERIOUSLY loved it..lol)
    oh well, ok then, although a bit one-dimensional and probably not too digest for the uninitiated, I think ‘story of O’ is still relevant today, precisely because it is written by a chick and this 60 years before 50 shades of Meh! Had only ever seen the movie, that has moments of involontary comic from today’s viewpoint but am trying to get into the groove to read it in the French original at the mom, just wasn’t into much (offscreen) reading lately. The first pages reflect a particular style of writing though, if I may say so, that is certainly part of the fascination of the story when it initially came out (1954!!)
    I have read a couple of actually well written books in France, that had adventurous stories with female heroines, not famous books but VERY straightforward on the matter, again, most enjoyable, I think when you are already open for this kind of thing. I had discovered that in France you can actually get pretty hardcore ‘erotic literature’ via your bookclub, so that was rather practical.. =)
    Only once in Australia did I find out that German porn is a little bit renowned in the world for it’s BDSM elements and crudity. Who knew? certainly not us, but it is true, I believe Germans have a healthy attitude when it comes to the different varieties of sexual preferences; in Germany BDSM was long discussed and widely accepted, and the community is huge over there. Tons of amateur movies online lol. Always their own category on porn sites too, ;)_
    But I was young and vanilla when I lived there, and haven’t really bothered reading ‘Venus in fur’ either since then, might try get it online, could be amusing. Takes us right back.
    The worst movie on the subject I have ever seen was ‘Citizen Cane’ (yes, really) that was, from memory, a highly stylized b/w “artsy” spanky porn flick and the most boring 10 min of my life. (it may have been longer but I left the room)
    Oh I always do this thing with the long comments, how invasive..
    (SEE what i did there??) =)

    • PLEASE, PLEASE, keep up with the long comments. Love them! Yeah, I did see Hysteria. Anything with Maggie I make a beeline for. I think I am seriously in love with her. But anyway, I really enjoyed it and found elements of it absolutely fascinating. I meant to write a blog about it but it got swept up somewhere. I’d love to know the history of the vibrator in Australia – if it had any similar use originally. I think there was a doco made here – will check out at some point. Citizen Cane. Gotta love the pretension at least.

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