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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.

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