By Noel Vera
David Cronenberg (2007)
(2007) is the story of Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife working at
a London hospital who helps a 14-year-old Russian girl (Sarah-Jeanne
Labrosse) deliver her child. The young mother dies, leaving behind
the infant girl and a diary; Anna, who is part Russian, adopts diary
and child and sets out to discover what had happened to the mother.
Her quest leads
her to the Trans-Siberian, a restaurant owned by Semyon (Armin Meuller-Stahl);
Semyon is all grandfatherly charm, offering to translate the diary;
Anna is hesitant - her uncle Stepan (Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowsky)
tells her to stay away from the vory v zakone (thieves in law),
the Russian mafia, of which Semyon is the apparent local leader.
Part and parcel of Semyon's organizational apparatus is his chauffer-slash-foot
soldier Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), whose primary assignment is guarding
Semyon's alcoholically unstable son, Kiril (Vincent Cassell). Will
Anna translate the diary and protect the girl? Will she develop
affection for, perhaps even a bond with, Nikolai, or will Kiril
(who's just dripping with suppressed desires) get to him first?
Will Semyon be brought to justice, the young girl avenged?
What do you
think? The script is by Steve Wright, who also wrote the screenplay
to Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things (2002) and, like that earlier
film, it's concerned with European immigrants and the way they feed
off of each other and struggle to survive. I wasn't that big a fan
of Frears' film--thought it (thanks in no small part to Frears'
verite visual style) presented a grim enough predicament, but also
a solution far too pat and tidy to be believable.
Likewise with his script for Eastern--it draws us into a strange
world and gives us enough details that we'd be hooked, but later
depends on such unlikely devices as a woman's implacable sense of
justice, a man's furtive sense of obligation, another man's implausible
sense of outrage (on exactly what he is or is not capable of doing)
to arrive at a (to Wright's mind, anyway) satisfying denouement.
Wright has his heart in its rightful place; it's just his way of
getting there that feels so wrong.
arguably one of the stranger, less sentimental filmmakers around.
If I may trot out an old argument I've been making, like fellow
master of the bizarre David Lynch he has strong feelings about sex
and sexuality; unlike Lynch (a boy scout of a man who believes in
the innocence and corruption of the world with equal fervor), there's
little that's naïve in Cronenberg; unlike Lynch, who as often
as not refuses to close in on the horrific imagery (or if he does,
he inserts it briefly into the big screen, like a retinal flash)
he's a pornographer of horror who prefers to show every gynecological
detail of his monstrosities in all their pulsating glory.
he's moved away from straight horror and into the realm of straight
drama--without, I submit, losing that sense of unblinking strangeness
that is the hallmark of all his films. Cronenberg, gazing upon a
man's face and not some outsized vaginal orifice, seems to regarded
that face as if it were a vaginal orifice, and still manages to
communicate his sense of alienated unease to us, sans prosthetic
strangeness of the film. Wright wrote a a tearjerker asking us to
cry for a poor little prostitute and her hard-luck life; Cronenberg
took the script and turned it into a meditation on the perversities
inflicted on the human body. A teenage girl stands unsteadily in
a drugstore, faints in a pool of her own blood; a man is kept frozen
in a freezer, thawed out with a hairdryer, has his frosty fingers
snipped off; another strips naked standing in a ring of old men,
in an arcane ritual evoking everything from James Woods declaring
fealty to the New Flesh in Cronenberg's Videodrome (1983) to Jeremy
Irons in scarlet high-priest robes, ready to perform medical alchemy
in Dead Ringers (1988).
The naked man's body, incidentally, is covered with intricate tattoos
(in the Russian mafia, tattoos not only identify a person, it tells
his story--where he came from, what he's gone through, who he's
affiliated with) and Cronenberg's camera gazes upon those tattoos
as if they were some Ballardian message inscribed by aliens, or
worse; a message waiting for us to translate it, with no guarantee
at all that we will like what we read.
As the medium
for that message and Cronenberg's actor of choice nowadays when
it comes to internally conflicted, externally stoic protagonists,
Viggo Mortensen gives a marvelous performance. It isn't just the
accent, delivered with Meryl Streeplike skill; Mortenson moves differently
in this film, moves like a cautious, courtly Russian who knows he
has to navigate carefully through a strange city; his sense of alienation
from the culture and society around him, his inability to treat
anything and anyone outside of his "family" with any amount of ease
(he's perhaps at his most comfortable with Kiril, his boss' sociopathic
son, who happens to be in love with him) turns him into our default
surrogate--our eyes, in effect--in this world made just a tad unreal
by virtue of being filtered through Cronenberg's sensibilities.
mentions that he wanted to avoid guns in the film, and I think he's
right to do so--knives are so much more precise in the kind of damage
they can do to human flesh as demonstrated in his setpiece action
sequence, an attempted assassination in a bathhouse.
The sequence (an attempted rape via Kyril by way of Semyon?) has
the some of the homoerotic poetry of the sauna murder in Orson Welles'
great Othello (1952), some of the complex fight choreography and
stuntwork of the climactic prison shower riot in Mario O'Hara's
Kastilyong Buhangin (Castle of Sand, 1980)--well, perhaps not as
intricate as the riot; O'Hara was working with stuntman-turned-star
Lito Lapid and his daredevil colleagues, and they were given carte
blanche to do pretty much whatever they wanted--and some of the
sense of bloodletting and violated flesh of a Cronenberg film. Not
a perfect production, not by a long shot, but a fascinating, fascinating
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First published in Businessworld, 12.07.07.