Last Friday, with the dark and stormy night providing an apt background for the evening, Arts & Lectures hosted a screening of iconic director David Cronenberg’s newest film, followed by a discussion with the director himself.
As any film geek will attest, Cronenberg is the consummate creative genius, consistently writing and directing projects that are always inventive, innovative and wholly identifiable as Cronenberg films.
Cronenberg’s latest film, “Eastern Promises,” is no different. The movie follows British midwife Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), who delivers the baby of a destitute teenage prostitute named Tatiana, only to lose the mother on the operating table. When she discovers the mother’s diary, she embarks on a journey to find the baby’s family before the child is placed in foster care. The diary leads her to Russian crime family Vory V Zakone, led by the courtly but enigmatic Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his spoiled son Kirill (Vincent Cassel).
Kirill’s increasingly volatile behavior jeopardizes the family, and Semyon turns to the boy’s equally enigmatic driver and cohort Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) to keep things under control. Meanwhile, Anna figures out that Tatiana and the Vory V Zakone family are inextricably intertwined, and her quest to discover the girl’s secrets leads her into direct confrontation with the family.
The film is classic Cronenberg, with the lushly drawn melancholy mood to match. Everything from the film soundtrack’s first few foreboding bars to the movie’s initial rain-soaked urban street scene combines to create a film that is both a tightly drawn tribute to the classic crime drama genre and a completely cutting-edge and contemporary piece of cinema.
Throughout the precisely woven plot, Cronenberg stays true to his trademark visual style – never shying away from the stark reality of a scene and, in fact, making sure to linger on the best and bloodiest bits for just a tad longer than most filmmakers would be comfortable doing. Like most masters of visual storytelling, Cronenberg expertly combines drama and comedy, eliciting audience laughs during some of the film’s most stomach-turning scenes. Even though the more violent scenes are brutally blunt, slit throats still flap with a comic flair and every dead or dying man is an opportunity for caustic one-liners.
The film’s iconic scene features a stark-naked Mortensen in hand-to-hand combat with two burly Chechens from a rival crime family. The scene is very violent but beautifully drawn, with the precisely calculated combination of unflinching, unmitigated violence and creative composition that is Cronenberg at his absolute best.
According to Cronenberg, the scene was not even storyboarded, and the actor’s carefully choreographed movements flowed naturally from their rehearsal process.
“I want to see everything, so it has to make real physiological sense,” Cronenberg said. “It has to be messy and awkward. … There’s a huge level of trust that we have with each other. It goes both ways. … The level of reality we had established in this film was very gritty and street-level and intimate.”
As Nikolai, Mortensen is stark and smoldering, expertly and effortlessly speaking Russian and managing to convey a dichotomous, Bogart-like sense of strength and vulnerability throughout the film.
As Cronenberg said of Mortensen, with whom he also worked in “A History of Violence”: “Our creative process seems to work in similar ways, and also, we have a lot of laughs together. … I have a very light set.”
It is this balanced understanding of the character’s pathos and gravitas with his straightforward gallows humor that makes Nikolai such a compelling character.
Although the chemistry between Anna and Nikolai is painfully palpable, it is the latent homoeroticism of the relationship between Nikolai and the volatile, violent Kirill that really provides the film’s most consistently electric relationship.
“Really, Vincent and Viggo are the hot couple in the movie,” Cronenberg said.
Watts, however, is also an indispensable element of the film, providing its moral compass and ensuring that the emotional core of the film is its most viscerally affective element.
As the headstrong leading lady, Watts displays her trademark trembling sense of strength, managing to be endearingly earnest and infuriatingly naive at the same time. According to Cronenberg himself, this is “because she can be absolutely real without any effort somehow. … She can just plug right into the scene in the most real way.”
Of course, it is not just Watts that makes every scene in “Eastern Promises” so enthrallingly, enrapturingly real. It is Cronenberg’s spot-on sense of self, his ability to craft the consummate genre film while still staying true to his own style that makes this movie as masterful and moving as anything else in his canon. And yet Cronenberg himself attributed this affectivity more to the film than to his own directorial mark.
“I think it would be a huge mistake to think about making something more ‘Cronenberg,’ except maybe my children,” Cronenberg said. “Instead, I listen to what the movie tells me.”
Either way, one of the movie’s messages is clear. Like “A History of Violence” before it, “Eastern Promises” serves to definitively cement David Cronenberg’s place in the annals of iconic auteurs. It is a film whose impact lingers long after the screen goes dark, and it proves once again that Cronenberg is a creative force whose career is destined to have the same kind of staying power. Seeing him in UCSB’s very own Campbell Hall was a privilege for everyone who attended and an awesomely apt way to spend fall’s first truly dark and stormy night.