2007 TIFF—Eastern Promises
Last year I attended the Toronto International Film Festival as a civilian. This year the lines of my hexagram have shifted from “Difficulty at the Beginning” to “Perseverance.” Attending pre-festival screenings offered by local Bay Area publicists has not only reduced the must-see quandaries to a (nevertheless) daunting process of choice, but afforded the welcome chance to talk to seasoned press about what I can expect in Toronto (I’ve heard over and over how well journalists are treated by festival personnel). It’s been interesting to note that all over the place more pre-festival screenings are being shown than ever before. That’s a welcome trend and so I offer up the first of a series of quick preliminaries of what I’ve seen from TIFF before even arriving.
I’ve been watching David Cronenberg’s films since my early 20s. At first I was a bit embarrassed that I enjoyed his disturbing visions so much, whether venereal parasites bursting out from beneath the skin, or infectious syringes emerging from the armpits of ex-porno stars, or the body negotiating bizarre interactions with technology; but, I really shouldn’t have been embarrassed. Time has confirmed that—though dark—Cronenberg’s films exhibit a singularly-unique luster. It’s hard not to be hypnotized by their sheen.
Besides, color me perverted, but Cronenberg’s understandings of the human body within its social context has been way ahead of the pack for decades now. Especially his awareness of skin as a liminal site of transformation. In recent years he has shifted away from genre manifestations of “horror” or “SF” to examine the truest horror of all lingering underneath the skin: the human propensity for violence. In Eastern Promises he offers the surface, the tattooed skin itself, and the tattoo as the mark of sin. He’s not the first, but, he’s certainly the most recent to remind that the Mark of Cain is the original tattoo.
Collaborating once more with his History of Violence leading man Viggo Mortensen, I had the chance to talk to both Cronenberg and Mortensen recently when they were in San Francisco on press junket and Greencine will be publishing that interview closer to the film’s distribution; but, for now, allow me to say that Eastern Promises delivers all it promises. Mortensen, as Nikolai Luzhin, maneuvers a mesmerizing dance between suave veneer and ruthless interiority and his performance in the bathhouse scene—which will be the scene everyone will be talking about—is downright brave and committed. All the performances are solid, each textured with moral ambiguities, that both distance and engage the audience simultaneously. My only objection—and it’s an admittedly half-hearted one at that—is the casting of Armin Meuller-Stahl as Semyon, the head of one of London’s most notorious organized crime families. Perhaps because of his brilliant performance in The Music Box, I assume a dark lining to his coat every time and am rarely taken by surprise when Papa becomes the Devil incarnate. Vincent Cassel’s performance as Semyon’s son Kirill provides the film’s Shakespearean shadings. “You play with a prince to do business with a king,” Cronenberg reminds us; an intrigue Nikolai woos to advantage.
Another consideration, completely incidental to the film itself, is Cronenberg’s admitted ennui with the so-called “horror” genre. He has gone on record as saying that he wants to move on. What I find of interest, however, is that Eastern Promises falls within the realm of horror’s earliest manifestations, when horror “came from the East” (i.e., Eastern Europe) to infect and infiltrate the Western world with its threat of miscegenation. Think of the Golden Age of Universal Horror with the tainted blood of its vampires and werewolves. With the advent of horror being registered through the American family, Eastern horror was relegated to the sidelines. Though perhaps not intending to, Cronenberg has restored Eastern horror to its rightful throne, replete with implications of miscegenation.
Cross-published on The Evening Class.