Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Eastern Promises: Cronenberg goes soft?

I expected with anticipation the new film of Cronenberg. After watching its trailer some months ago I imagined that Eastern Promises would be an exceptionally good film. I though that it would successfully combine high aesthetic with dark materials and the usual audacity of the director. Besides that I have to admit that I have a soft spot for both Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts. However, when you go to watch a film with high expectations experience has proven that you always get disappointed.

A young girl arrives at the hospital during the shift of Naomi Watts. She is in labor and dies given birth to a baby girl. The nurse Watts finds the mother’s diary written in Russia and tries to discover the relatives of the girl in order to give them the baby. In the diary are written details of the Russia mafia operating at London. The nurse is big trouble but to her rescue comes Viggo, the driver of the mafia who aspires to be accepted in the mafia family as a true member.

Eastern Promises seems a very mainstream film. Both main actors manage to create two characteristic individuals. The whole story is very ordinary and very non Cronenberg. This film could have been made by another director. Its’ aesthetics are very well thought. Only an accomplished director would be able to achieve the great pictures and the dark and cruel atmosphere that envelops the whole film. Still it lacks all the extremity and audacity of images and ideas that we are used to get form Cronenberg. No atrocities, no sexual pervasions, no provoking of our tolerance. There is only one scene that reminds us the extreme gore that Cronenberg used to implement in his films. In the hot baths two men attack to kill Viggo. He is naked and vulnerable but still manages to win this brutal battle. The violence of this scene is extreme. At the same time the scene is much eroticized since the actor is completely naked. Violence and eroticism is a strange combination that spectator might find both appalling and strangely attractive. This mix though is something that Cronenberg would find interesting and choose to do in one of his films.

Only some hints on the second level of the film prove that Cronenberg has remained consistent and true to his usual obsessions and ideas. Tattoo is the first motif that the spectator can recognize as Cronenbergian. The members of the Russia mafia stigmatize their bodies narrating their personal history. When Viggo is interviewed in order to get accepted in the inner circle of the Russia mafia he stands naked before the leaders. They read his tattoos and ask him several questions about his past and family. Scars on the surface of our body are signs left from our past. They prove our history: our illnesses, our accidents and other incidents of our past. Here, the tattoos are used as scars that prove a man’s past and therefore his identity. In this way Cronenberg hints that our body forms our personal identity. Identity is the second real Cronenbergian motif that we find in this film. But does the body form our personal identity for real? No! As usual Cronenberg has created the perfect set up for his spectator. Bringing forward with such intensity the body which was the theme of his older films (the films before ExistenZ) manages to hide his true intention and surprise his spectator. Viggo’s body always very present on the scene, naked, strong and highly eroticized does not define actually him. It lies for him. His true identity is proven only in the end of the film when we realize he is an undercover cap. The paradox is that the mafia believes the story that is revealed by Viggo’s body. Then chooses this same body in order to lie and trick somebody else. Why would they have such a strong believe on something that they know that can be manipulated in such a way?

Cronenberg seems to declare that our body does not form our identity. Nor does our past (A History of Violence) neither does our family. Identity is not something given, he says. It is a personal choice and it can be changed. Of course there is an issue here. In the last scene Viggo has taken the place of the leader of the mafia. He sits at the same table where he used to sit sipping down his drink in exactly the same posture as the previous leader. If personal identity is so flexible and has nothing to do with our physical presence, past or family, how easy is it to loose your identity and without realizing to become someone else, someone you didn’t even like in the first place?

For another time I am forced to make compensations. Eastern Promises might not be the raw shocking fresh and weird material that Cronenberg used to produce in the first decades of his career but it still is a good –even if not great film- that remains within the sphere of the ideas and philosophical questions of its’ creator. Cronenberg gets older and he might get softer but as Truffaut would say the worst film of an auteur is always better than the best film of a simple mainstream director. In other words even if I am not totally satisfied by Eastern Promises (or Lynch’s Inland Empire for that matter) I still can not reject a film that hides some serious thinking and ideas behind its surface.