Written on the skin

Pub date September 12, 2007
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, Federico Fellini and Marcello Mastroianni, Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune — legendary screen team-ups betwixt a vision-questing director and his or her alter ego star filter are the stuff of cinematic legend. Wet dreams for reviewers intent on imbuing criticism with the sticky glaze of biography, they’re also seemingly part of a mythical auteur-driven cinematic past that was untouched by the hard-line realities of big-budget, gun-for-hire studio economics.

So it’s remarkable to find a filmmaker like David Cronenberg reteaming with his A History of Violence (2005) star Viggo Mortensen for Eastern Promises — it’s only the second time that Cronenberg has repeated such a collaboration since his work with Jeremy Irons in M. Butterfly (1993) and the director’s masterwork, Dead Ringers (1988). Sure, the feature also revolves around the mob (this time the Russian Vory v Zakone rather than the Irish mafia) and family, of both the biological and the bloodily nonbiological sorts. But there must be something deeper going on here. Talking to an energetic, black-clad Cronenberg, temporarily sprawled on a damask couch at the Ritz-Carlton a few weeks back and preparing to head back to his hometown film festival in Toronto, I wondered what exactly was the nature of his and Mortensen’s obviously tight relationship.

"Oh, we’re in love," the 64-year-old director quipped dryly. Shall we alert the tabloids about forthcoming nuptials, in the scandalous style of Ingrid Bergman running off with Roberto Rossellini?

"Yeah, it’s kind of a brotherly love as well. I feel like he’s the brother I never had. We’re very close. No, we’re very close."

Cronenberg kids you — not a stance expected from the man once associated with a grotesque yet cerebral breed of filmic Grand Guignol. But perhaps it isn’t entirely unprecedented: he famously splattered the prepubescent screens of pop-cult consciousness with his literally mind-blowing Scanners (1981). Punctuating his points with sharp hand gestures and following every flicker of your glance, the man thinks and jests both on and off his feet — and spars and parries just as effortlessly.

For Cronenberg, Eastern Promises‘ attraction lay not in its focus on mafia or family but in the well-crafted, textural script by Dirty Pretty Things‘ Steven Knight. "I was particularly interested in the multicultural aspect, because London, like Toronto, prides itself on being multicultural, which is to say immigrants can come and maintain their national identity and still live within the English context," the filmmaker mused. "That’s a nice concept. Does it really work? There are a lot of frictions, hostilities, and enmities that are brought from the old country."

The multilingual, half-Danish Mortensen has proved the ideal specimen, or Cronenbergian vessel, through which to play out these ideas. In contrast to A History of Violence‘s Tom Stall, whose assimilative veneer of wholesome middle-American respectability is torn away by a sudden, almost sensually shocking outburst of violence to reveal a noirish mafia past, Mortensen’s mysterious Eastern Promises character, Nikolai Luzhin, is all cold and mechanistic as he moves carefully through the alienating turf of a Russian immigrant neighborhood in London. Behind his slick, sexually contained, rockabillyesque shades, suit, and pompadour, Nikolai keeps his past firmly hidden, showing only bodily badges of allegiance, a vividly baroque comic book constellation of Siberian prison tattoos. The mafia narrative has become a way of venturing into the shadow zones of biological and chosen families. In Eastern Promises, Cronenberg juxtaposes the quest of Anna (Naomi Watts) to find the relatives of a dead Russian girl’s infant with Nikolai’s search for acceptance within the family of crime boss Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl).

On its slick gray and black noirish surface, Eastern Promises doesn’t resemble offerings like 1979’s The Brood, 1983’s Videodrome, 1986’s The Fly, or 1996’s Crash, films that bound Cronenberg’s name to that of the phrase body horror. But one can’t help but glimpse the filmmaker’s themes in the starry ciphers on Mortensen’s form.

So what does Cronenberg think of so-called body horror today? "I think nothing!" he exclaims with a comic snort. "It does seem kind of ridiculous. When you think of it, horror is about mortality, and it’s about mortality seen as a very physical event. That’s what, to me, horror films are about. To me, the genre is about the body, really."


Opens Fri/14 in Bay Area theaters