Keira Knightley, Charlize Theron, others play women on the edge

Shortly after Russian hysteric Sabina Spielrein is carried kicking and screaming into a Swiss sanitarium, her new doctor, Carl Jung, primly inquires, “What are your interests?” Sabina, portrayed in “A Dangerous Method” by Keira Knightley, snarls in reply: “Suicide and interplanetary travel.”

Some icebreaker!

Spastic and stammering, Sabina recovers after taking the “talking cure” administered by Jung (Michael Fassbender) under the guidance of his mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). Over the course of the film, she embodies a character type highly coveted by Hollywood’s finest actresses: Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdowns.

This year’s collection of high-strung characters includes Michelle Williams’ portrait of the self-medicating Marilyn Monroe in “My Week With Marilyn,” Elizabeth Olsen’s brainwashed cult survivor in “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” Charlize Theron’s delusional would-be adulterer in “Young Adult,” Kirsten Dunst’s end-of-the-world depressive in “Melancholia” and Tilda Swinton’s brittle star turn as a woman trying to cope with a sociopathic son in “We Need to Talk About Kevin.”


Dramatists and actors love to sink their teeth into sensitive characters who just can’t take it anymore, says “A Dangerous Method” writer Christopher Hampton. “It’s meat and drink,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve always been really interested in people suffering extreme conditions of one sort or another.”

The symptoms dramatized in “A Dangerous Method” are “specific to the period,” Hampton says. “Hysteria has pretty much been either medicated away or the conditions that gave rise to it — repression and shame and the fear of making a misstep in a very rigid society — no longer exist.”

To prepare her characterization, Knightley and director David Cronenberg studied old silent films of women who suffered from “hysteria,” says Hampton. As to the sources of Sabina’s dysfunction, “A Dangerous Method” elucidates cause and effect with clinical clarity: She’s a masochist who likes to be punished because her father spanked her when she was a toddler.

By contrast, Mavis Gary, the gorgeous author of teen-centric fiction portrayed by Theron in “Young Adult,” suffers low-grade disintegration for reasons that have nothing to do with childhood trauma and everything to do with delusions of grandeur rooted in her glory days as a high school alpha female.


“Young Adult” writer Diablo Cody explains, “Mavis has a huge entitlement complex, and she’s driven by childlike impulses. She doesn’t really have a huge epiphany that turns her around.”

In place of a self-improving catharsis, Mavis instead revels in the type of third-act meltdown that characterizes many exemplars of Nervous Breakdown Cinema. Dressed like a runway model in stiletto heels and a thick smear of blood-red lipstick, Mavis shows up at a small town baby-naming party thrown by her ex-boyfriend (Patrick Wilson) and hurls the F-bomb at the nice mom (Elizabeth Reaser).

Why so much rage?

“Mavis is extremely indignant about how happy everyone seems to be,” Cody says. “She doesn’t feel they have any right to be satisfied with their lives, because she isn’t. She wants to drive the point home that she is prettier, better, more successful.”


Cody, winner of an Academy Award for her “Juno” screenplay, says Anne Hathaway’s performance as the bitterly funny narcissist in 2008’s “Rachel Getting Married” served as inspiration for “Young Adult.” “On one hand, it’s horrifying to see how disturbed Mavis is and watch her behave in this way. On the other hand — I don’t know how to say this without sounding like a complete psychopath — but when I watch the film, I want to see what she’ll do next. I’m kind of hoping nobody can stop her.”

Numerous forces conspire to impede Olsen’s title character in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” by writer-director Sean Durkin. After spending two secretive years with a commune leader (John Hawkes), Martha escapes cult life and reconnects with her straight-arrow sister (Sarah Paulson). Dreams, memories and imagined dangers complicate her reentry into “normal” society. “Martha’s paranoia isn’t fake,” Olsen says by email. “It is a true sense of fear. From an acting point of view, everything had to be treated like it was real. The confusion comes when someone confronts her on it.”

Citing performances by Susannah York in “Images,” Kate Winslet in “Holy Smoke” and Katharine Hepburn in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” as models of profoundly stressed female characters, Olsen says her character experiences “a heightened sense of her surroundings. If something or someone puts her in danger, whether it was the house being near a lake, or a young man who stood out to her at a crowded party or hearing things hit the roof above her, it became a matter of life or death.”