The first thing one notices is the eyes. A soothing shade of baby blue, they gleam brightly as if yearning to engulf everything in their wake. It's fitting that David Cronenberg possesses such a distinctive gaze, for he's a filmmaker whose work oozes singularity.
The 64-year-old Canadian director enters a hotel room at the Toronto International Film Festival dressed entirely in black, his thick, white hair swept back allowing easy access to those baby blues. He's here to talk about his latest movie, Eastern Promises, a seemingly straightforward London-set thriller that nonetheless carries its creator's signature subversive undercurrents. And, of course, it also explores Cronenberg's pet interests: the nature of reality, identity, violence and family, almost always within the context of what's considered "normal."
Cronenberg is one of the best directors alive, a man whose preoccupation with the human body and its various mutations and interactions with the physical world has resulted in some of the most arresting films of the last quarter century. Pigeonholed as a horror director early in his career, Cronenberg's psychologically complex works transcend genre by way of his fierce intelligence and sensuous yet often unblinkingly gruesome visual aesthetic. From his breakthrough Scanners (1981) to his take on a big-budget Hollywood flick, The Fly (1986), to the controversial, thoroughly engrossing Crash (1997) to the stellar A History of Violence (2005), Cronenberg has followed his existential muse in an organic, almost subliminal manner.
"You make the movie to find out why you wanted to make the movie," he says when asked what interested him about Steve Knight's Eastern Promises script.
"You're drawn to it. You don't really know why. I think a lot of people think I have a checklist of themes or something that I must have: Like I must have body transformation and I must have identity switches and so on. I don't think that way at all. That's all analysis after the fact. I'm just watching a movie when I'm reading it. I'm either intrigued (or I'm not), and I'm thinking (whether) I can get into some really interesting, complex, maybe disturbing, maybe profound things. The movie had a wonderful texture and wonderful characters."
Deceptively simple on the surface, Eastern Promises finds Cronenberg's talents in full force, a director so at home in the medium that he's beginning to make things look easy. It's a natural companion piece to A History of Violence, one that again uses Viggo Mortensen's quietly intense presence to propel a character of ambiguous intent and identity.
Mortensen is Nikolai, a mysterious driver for a Russian crime family in London headed by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his volatile, sexually conflicted son Kirill (Vincent Cassel). The brooding tale kick-starts when Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife at a local hospital, delivers a baby as its 14-year-old Russian mother dies during childbirth. Determined to locate the child's family via the mother's pilfered diary, Anna finds herself on the doorstep of Semyon's plush restaurant where she is unexpectedly yet willfully plunged into a dangerous underworld marked by machismo galore and a ritualistic interest in tattoos.
Eastern Promises' few scenes of violence are delivered in typical Cronenberg style: graphic and matter-of-fact. It's an approach the director says is crafted with great precision and care.
"For me, the first fact of human existence is the human body," he says. "I take death seriously. I think that when someone kills someone that person is committing an absolute act of destruction. I don't believe in an afterlife, so I don't think there's any, 'And then they go to heaven and some other kind of life.' I think that, no, you've destroyed a unique creature that never existed before, will never exist again. That person's experiences of life and so on, all of those things (are) unique. Violence is a very physical act for me, so I want my audience to take it seriously."
Eastern Promises' most memorable set piece — a balls-out, extended bathhouse fight sequence that revels in Cronenberg's elemental investigation of man as animal — indicates Mortensen's dedication to his director and recalls another recent, more comic wrestling match between naked men.
"I didn't see Borat, but I did see Women in Love 40 years ago with Alan Bates and Oliver Reed wrestling," Cronenberg says. "But one of the things that you have to do when you're directing is ignore things. You do put blinders on because if you worried about the whole weight of the history of film noir — from Fritz Lang's M to The Godfather to you name it — you would paralyze yourself. You can't worry about, 'Is this too similar to that? Is it not different enough? Do I want it to be the same shot as they did in The Sopranos?'
"If you add to that people's expectations of you as a filmmaker — 'Is this Cronenbergian enough or is it not?' — if you worried about that stuff you couldn't make one decision. And yet as a director you are literally making 2,000 decisions a day. You have to free yourself of all of that paralysis."
Speaking of paralysis, did the MPAA give the boundary-pushing director any problems this time out?
"No," he says immediately. "But they don't like blood or sex. All the good things they hate." ©