Arts & Entertainment - TIFF
Story Tools: PRINT | Text Size: S M L XL | REPORT TYPO | SEND YOUR FEEDBACK

Promise fulfilled

David Cronenberg’s masterful take on globalization

Director David Cronenberg. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press) Director David Cronenberg. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Over the past 30 years, David Cronenberg has taught us many things about the human body: how wounds can be penetrated for sexual pleasure, what a head looks like when it explodes, how to kill with one’s bare hands, what happens when people merge with televisions, video games and insects, and how to fashion a gun out of bone and muscle.

His latest lesson involves the sound flesh makes when it’s sliced open. Let go of your West Side Story-conceived ideas of knife fights. Even if you’ve never witnessed a throat being slit, or a chest being slashed, when you hear it happen in Cronenberg’s new feature Eastern Promises, without any music or special effects as a distraction, you know that this must be what it really sounds like: a wet, metallic squish.

In a watch-through-your-fingers scene, two Chechen gangsters armed with knives jump Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), a driver for a Russian mob boss in London, while he’s having a schvitz at a bathhouse. It’s a grisly battle, shot close up, with a wide lens and none of what Cronenberg calls “Bourne movie impressionistic editing. [I wanted] something grittier that looks like hard work.” Raw brutality aside, the most striking detail about the scene, and the one that has generated so much media fluttering, is that Mortensen is naked throughout the fight, a sight that combines some of Cronenberg’s favourite tensions: physical vulnerability, eroticism and violence.

“It’s meant to be disturbing,” the 64-year-old director says on the phone from his home in Toronto, where he was born and raised. “Because violence, when you get right down to it, is the destruction of the human body and the destruction of a human being. I take that very seriously and I don’t want to let my audience off the hook.”

It’s hard to imagine a director less likely to be accused of that. Since he started making films in the 1960s, Cronenberg has been a rare breed: an artist in genre territory, subverting horror and science fiction clichés to explore themes of paranoia, technology and the boundaries of the human body. His work — 16 features in all — has generated acclaim as well as controversy. He’s been appointed Chevalier in France’s Order of Arts and Letters, won a Special Jury Prize at Cannes for the audacious Crash in 1996, and, in 1999, received the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for lifetime achievement in film.

On the other hand, his first feature Shivers, a 1975 horror movie about parasites run amok, was the subject of a scathing article in Saturday Night magazine by Robert Fulford titled “You Should Know How Bad This Film Is. After All, You Paid For It.” Twenty years later, the release of Crash was held up for months by Ted Turner, who owned the distributor, Fine Line, because he objected to its graphic sexuality.

His 2005 critical and commercial hit A History of Violence was the closest he’s come to mainstream, Hollywood-style respectability since he directed the Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone in 1983 and the remake of The Fly three years later. (Those successes brought offers to direct Flashdance, Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop; instead he opted for Dead Ringers, a film about twisted, twin gynecologists.)

A History of Violence earned two Oscar nominations and, despite its dark themes, was the director’s most accessible film. That was due, in no small part, to its brilliant performances and stylish, economical direction, but also because audiences may have finally caught up with the method behind Cronenberg’s madness.

Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), left, draws Anna (Naomi Watts) into the world of organized crime in David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises. (Peter Mountain/Focus Features)
Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), left, draws Anna (Naomi Watts) into the world of organized crime in David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises. (Peter Mountain/Focus Features)

His examinations of violence and fear have an urgency now that they didn’t before. At a time when images of the beheading of journalist Daniel Pearl, or the hanging of Saddam Hussein, or the bombing of the London transit system can be viewed online, he is an essential artist who forces audiences to acknowledge their own culpability in the glamorization of violence.

“A few years ago, a normal person would not be able to watch a snuff film in his home [on his computer], and now he can. That’s very new and that’s very disturbing. I actually think that people are more sensitive now [when they see violence in films], because it has resonances that it never had before. Certainly, in the throat cuttings in my movie, I was definitely thinking in terms of what I had seen on the net. It’s a completely legitimate approach to make films that are entertaining without any cost and designed to let the audience be exhilarated without feeling any pain. But it’s not an approach that interests me.”

On the surface, Eastern Promises seems like a companion piece to AHOV. Both star Mortensen as an enigmatic man with ties to criminal gangs. Both tweak thriller and film noir conventions. But Cronenberg says that’s where the similarities end. AHOV “is a film about America and it’s set in the American heartland.”

Eastern Promises, which was written by Steven Knight (Dirty, Pretty Things), takes place among Eastern European immigrants living in modern-day London. Mortensen’s Nikolai works for Kirill (Vincent Cassel), the reckless son of a smooth mob boss (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who runs a sex slavery ring out of his lavish Russian restaurant. When a pregnant Russian junkie dies during childbirth, a half-Russian midwife (Naomi Watts) gets drawn into their underground world. Despite the knife fights and throat slittings, it’s not a film about violence, Cronenberg says, but multiculturalism.

“That’s one of the things that attracted me to the script, as someone who also lives in a multicultural city. [In London,] you have Turks, Russians, Chechens, Azerbaijanis, having transplanted their cultures from their native lands and now settling uneasily together under the umbrella of English culture. In a strange way, it’s about globalization, a criminal globalization in this case, and it’s also about capitalism. That’s one of the things that Russia is exporting, the rawest, most virulent form of capitalism. One that’s not been refined over hundreds of years, but just 10 or 15, and most of it springing originally from crime.”

It’s a reversal of Britain’s role as a one-time imperial power. Now, it’s the immigrants who are mining the country for its resources — money, drugs, education, health care — and establishing a bulwark of their own culture and values on English soil. “It reminds me of an interview I saw with a Muslim spokesperson in Britain who was asked if he’d ever assimilate ‘into our country.’ And he said, ‘What makes you think it’s your country anymore?’”

Yet, alongside these tensions exists the beauty and vitality of these transplanted lives. The mob boss’s restaurant is a fantasy of crystal, fine linen and trays laden with blood-red borscht. And in a stunning initiation scene, Mortensen stands naked before a rogues gallery of gangsters being interrogated ahead of receiving the traditional star-design tattoos. The actor has a sexuality not unlike Marlon Brando’s — an unquestionable masculinity, combined with a feline, almost feminine grace. Cronenberg shoots him with the kind of hungry and worshipful gaze usually reserved for female stars. It’s a shockingly sensual moment that articulates the essence of the director’s longtime study of violence: a deep reverence for the human body and the souls that dwell inside them.

“I think people come to movies to get into another life for a little while, so if you are going to be Viggo Mortensen’s character Nikolai, then I want you to really inhabit him, to know him and who he is. I don’t want to be coy.”

Rachel Giese writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.

CBC does not endorse and is not responsible for the content of external sites - links will open in new window.



More from this Author

Rachel Giese

Mad refuge
André Alexis's new novel Asylum finds sex and scandal in 1980s Ottawa
Eternal youth
Novelist Meg Rosoff explores her inner child
Talking back
Persepolis takes a brat's-eye view of Iran
Jumping off the page
2007: The year in books
Whoa, baby
Ellen Page and Diablo Cody deliver big laughs in Juno
[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Story Tools: PRINT | Text Size: S M L XL | REPORT TYPO | SEND YOUR FEEDBACK

World »

Dylann Roof confession video played in court: 'I killed them'
Dylann Roof hesitated for only moments before confessing to killing nine black people at a Charleston, S.C., church as an FBI agent questioned him less than 24 hours after the shooting.
Obama orders 'deep dive review' of 'malicious' election campaign hacking
U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered intelligence officials to conduct a broad review on the election-season hacking that rattled the presidential campaign and raised new concerns about foreign meddling in U.S. elections.
'People just panicked': 6.9 magnitude quake destroys homes on Solomon Islands
Hundreds of people in remote parts of the Solomon Islands have had their homes damaged or destroyed by a powerful magnitude 6.9 earthquake that struck Friday, an aid organization said.
more »

Canada »

Police searching for Dr. Elana Fric-Shamji's purse, mobile phone near Vaughan creek
Toronto police are conducting a land and water search in the area where Dr. Elana Fric-Shamji's body was found on Dec. 1, in hopes of finding a purse and cellphone belonging to the slain physician.
Jack Kramer acquitted of raping Calgary woman in front of husband in 1995
Jack Kramer has been found guilty of break and enter and possession of a weapon, but not guilty of the more serious charges of forcible confinement and sexual assault related to a 1995 attack on a woman in her home.
Obama creates 'resilience area' off Alaska, to protect Bering ecosystem
U.S. President Barack Obama used his executive powers Friday to add protections to waters off Alaska's west coast. The area covers 290,855 square kilometres and supports the annual marine mammal migration of bowhead and beluga whales, Pacific walrus, ice seals and migratory birds.
more »

Politics »

Updated B.C. joins Saskatchewan in opposing parts of national climate plan video
The first ministers meeting on climate change hit a roadblock Friday afternoon as B.C. and Saskatchewan signalled serious concerns with the proposed national plan.
Russia threatens retaliation over latest round of Canadian sanctions video
Russia is threatening to retaliate after Canada quietly imposed additional sanctions on Russian nationals over the annexation of Crimea and Moscow's ongoing support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
John McCallum says government still has to convince Canadians to embrace refugees audio
The man tasked with bringing thousands of Syrian refugees to Canada says that while most Canadians were quick to embrace them, his government still "has to work very hard" to convince some people to embrace these new arrivals.
more »

Health »

Sorry - we can't find that page
 
CBC.ca

Sorry, we can't find the page you requested.

  1. Please check the URL in the address bar, or ...
  2. Use the navigation links at left to explore our site, or ...
  3. Enter a term in the Quick Search box at top, or ...
  4. Visit our site map page

In a few moments, you will be taken to our site map page, which will help you find what you looking for.

more »

Arts & Entertainment»

Video Teen troubles and Tony Stark abound in debut Spider-Man: Homecoming trailer
Spider-Man: Homecoming promises a jaunty return to the webslinging title character's teenage world, with a debut trailer that centres on high school drama, learning to juggle a double identity and testing boundaries set by new mentor Tony Stark.
Questions raised about Trump's continued role in Celebrity Apprentice
Donald Trump's continued stake in television's Celebrity Apprentice adds to questions about potential conflicts between his personal and public responsibilities, while raising new ones about NBC.
Taylor Swift teams up with Zayn Malik for Fifty Shades duet I Don't Wanna Live Forever
Taylor Swift and Zayn Malik have dropped a surprise duet single from the Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack.
more »

Technology & Science »

Scientists hunt for carbon monoxide poisoning antidote
Scientists are on the trail of a potential antidote for carbon monoxide poisoning, an injected 'scavenger' that promises to trap and remove the gas from blood within minutes.
'Sexist' banquet joke riles researchers at Arctic science conference in Winnipeg
A group of researchers released an open letter protesting what they call a sexist joke at the conference's gala banquet, which the executive director is defending as a 'linguistic misspeak.'
Blog Virtual reality a sickening experience
A new study shows that women experience more virtual reality-related motion sickness.
more »

Money »

Major New York markets hit second consecutive day of record highs
Major New York indexes hit a second consecutive day of record highs, while the Toronto stock market inched up to continue a six-day rise.
Ad revenue outlook sees continued big gains for digital media in 2017
Digital advertising will continue to outstrip other media forms this year and next when it comes to bringing in ad dollars, according to a new forecast from media buying company GroupM.
Anti-corruption group calls for more disclosure on owners of Canadian companies, trusts
The federal government should require all companies and trusts to identify their beneficial owners, according to the recommendations contained in a report from the Canadian division of Transparency International, a global anti-corruption organization.
more »

Consumer Life »

Sorry - we can't find that page
 
CBC.ca

Sorry, we can't find the page you requested.

  1. Please check the URL in the address bar, or ...
  2. Use the navigation links at left to explore our site, or ...
  3. Enter a term in the Quick Search box at top, or ...
  4. Visit our site map page

In a few moments, you will be taken to our site map page, which will help you find what you looking for.

more »

Sports »

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Duhamel-Radford pick up pairs bronze in France video
Canada's Meaghan Duhamel and Eric Radford won bronze in the pairs at the Grand Prix Final in Marseille, France on Friday.
Coming Up World short-course swimming championships video
Watch the semifinals and finals tonight at 6:30 p.m. ET as Canadian Olympians Kylie Masse and Katerine Savard compete at the world short-course championships in Windsor, Ont.
Hockey Night in Canada: Free live streams on CBC Sports app
For the 2016-17 season, the CBC Sports app will provide free live streams of select Hockey Night in Canada games on Saturday nights.
more »

Diversions »

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
more »