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Entries in Cronenberg (4)

Thursday
Jan222015

Dead Ringers

The original source of this film has been claimed and disputed, sometimes unpleasantly, although the curious researcher can cite a novel, another film released only a few years before it (that treats of a very different situation), as well as the case of real-life twin gynecologists. I have always found the Greenaway claim as spurious as the garbage it perpetrates; I know nothing of the book (actually mentioned as the film's basis) or of the now long-deceased brothers. Whatever the inspiration, it is the final product that justifies its ingredients, and that product is nothing less than exquisite.

Our twins are first seen in 1954 in what, owing to their British speech, we imagine may not be their native Ontario. Nerdiness, light-brown hair, glasses, and a peculiar fastidiousness in manner distinguish the twins from the rest of humanity, but not in any way from one another. They approach and proposition a coeval, perhaps around eleven, and she responds with the two missiles children always launch at one another: threats from a parent and the very plausible assertion that the twins do not know the slightest thing about copulation. As it were, our lads are precocious enough to end up thirteen years later at Harvard Medical School; they are also perverted enough – perverted might not be the ideal choice of words  to provoke suspicion among their supervisors for their unusual methods and tools. After this brief introduction we come to the present time and place, 1988 Toronto. The two men, identified in a school awards ceremony, are Elliot and Beverly Mantle (Jeremy Irons in bilocation) who have grown into identical copies of one another in profession and appearance. Gynecologists with their own clinic, their bizarre, almost sadistic devices now standard issue in the industry, the brothers' success is reflected by their enormous modern flat, a favorite expensive restaurant where they are served as if they never leave, and a certain insouciance towards the cares of lesser beings. In time, two important facts are revealed: Elliot, or Elly, is the gregarious, schmoozing sort who handles all public relations matters, finances, and teaching; Beverly, or Bev, is the researcher and normally the fellow in the office examining patients. One suspects that their female-sounding hypocorisms (no one else addresses them as such) may be akin to odd nicknames used in turn-of-the-century British literature, but I digress. Now and then when one of them is tired, unwell, or otherwise indisposed, the other fills his shoes and no one notices anything awry. Even if the fabulous Mantle brothers are known in Toronto for many things, one of which is women.

The Mantles' pursuit and conquest of women, often their own patients, becomes the barometer for the sole distinction between the brothers: that of temperament. Elly is the smarmy bastard who enjoys serial love affairs without incurring anything more than an occasional slap in the face; Bev is the quiet, retiring academic trapped in a state of perpetual discomfort. While Bev's research generates the lifeblood of Elly's operations (as well as his eventual professorship), Elly's Lothario schemes get Bev laid. "If it weren't for me," says Elly in a moment of amazed recognition, "you'd still be a virgin." It is therefore of no particular importance that Elly has most recently gotten himself involved with a well-known actress by the name of Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold). Claire has always wanted children; as Elly so succinctly puts it, she typifies that typical headline, "Celebrity actress says life incomplete without children." Of course, she has solicited the aid of Dr. Mantle, whom she, unlike most of Toronto, knows as one person, implying that circumstances have gotten rather dire. Upon examining her Elly learns the cause: she has a trifurcate cervix, a freak mutation that is "fabulously rare." Googling such a term yields entries almost exclusively referring to Dead Ringers, which might indicate that we are dealing with medical fantasy. Whatever the case, the notion of mutation will plague the brothers for the entire film they will find neither a way over nor around it. Elly does what he wants to do with her then, at the next opportunity of casual gratification, gleefully recommends that Bev replace him. He does and arrives at Claire's as shyly as Elly seized her hips and reminded her that every fiber of her body can be linked in palpitating bliss. One detail suggests that Claire perceives the difference from her very first embrace with Bev, but will be officially informed at a lunch with a friend later on. Her first scene with Bev remains, however, paramount to the developments that will occur, and includes one of the greatest lines in the history of cinema ("I've never used contraceptive devices; I've never even thought contraceptive thoughts"). But over time she notices that there exist two distinct personalities, the sweet caring one and the human excrement  which is how she addresses the brothers when she finally meets them together.

What occurs thereafter has garnered the Dead Ringers praise as a horror film, perhaps because the opening credits emit something of the macabre. Some reviewers have even sided with Claire  for reasons, I admit, I could not possibly imagine: she is not compelling, interesting, or even comely. Past her prime and obsessed with the child she cannot bear, she annoys us as much as she annoys Elly and Bev. Well, actually, that's not quite right. Bev takes to her more passionately than he's likely taken to anything or anyone in his life apart from medicine; Elly, on the other hand, grows jealous of her command over his brother. At the film's midway point Claire summons the elder twin to her makeup trailer to talk about Bev and, in a very starlet-like gesture, to discover whether Elliot, too, can't be convinced to love her. We initially see one side of her face, which is untouched by rouge or powder and rather masculine in its ferocity  but she turns to Elliot and we see what violent embellishments her role calls for, the career-resurrecting role, mind you, for which she abandons Bev to his own devices for ten long weeks. Therefrom we proceed down a swerving, troubled path, but we do realize why women are allowed to come between these two men only when they are patients or prey (Bev is "no good with the frivolous ones," Elly "no good with the serious ones"). So the dénouement should not surprise anyone except the lovers of melodrama  which would be, in a way, the vast majority of those frivolous or serious women. And you may do well to remember that old adage about the gun on the wall.

Geneviève Bujold

Saturday
Dec282013

Eastern Promises

This film's casting of a German, a Frenchman, and a Danish-American who grew up in Latin America as Russian mobsters is indeed a unique circumstance (considering my language interests, I could not have found a better combination) – a circumstance, mind you, that cloaks a basic premise not to be revealed on these pages.  The secret of Eastern Promises can easily be determined from the intergalactic weapon known as Google albeit tempered by the caveat that, without such subterfuge, this film would function in ostensibly the same manner.  Surely some of the characters' actions and words would be viewed in a different light; but the story is one of immersion in a subculture that does not really permit coming up for air.  For that reason throughout the film, mysterious glances are exchanged that suggest other secrets, other lives, other motives.  Somehow we are fascinated by this disgusting lot, if only because they seem to exist in a world very much apart, and the whole story is governed, I readily believe, by two distinct notions of historical truth.  The first concerns the criminal world as it is privately depicted; the second involves the private world as it is discussed in the context of organized crime.  The intersection of these two perceptions – however wrong or right they may be – is a bold step that requires little plot or schematics.  All such a project needs, in fact, is for the audience to identify two broad themes in the film, much like a painting in two wholly different colors, that at the same time are smelted into one distinct hue.  And once smelted, the themes become even more transparent.

Our introduction to this hellish realm warns us that we are not dealing with the Romanticized modern westerns made most famous by this film.  The opening scene takes place in a barber shop in London called Azim's where a young, well-heeled Russian is having, unbeknownst to him, his very last shave.  The next scene in a Muslim-owned convenience store features a very pregnant teenage girl, also Russian, dripping blood and barefoot.  As she is rushed to the emergency room and the care of midwife Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), viewers who have read nothing about the film may suspect that we are headed towards another tale of Muslim-Russian animosity (this suggestion is, however, only the film's first red herring and it boasts a whole tinful).  The pregnant girl Tatiana dies in childbirth, but her baby girl survives and is unofficially adopted by Anna who also unofficially adopts the teenager's conveniently explicit diary; the problem, of course, is that the entire diary is in Russian.  Despite being of Russian provenance and living with her mother (Sinéad Cusack) and very volatile uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski), Anna has a paltry command of her forefathers' native tongue.  Her uncle would gladly translate it for her if he didn't think that it should be placed unread in Tatiana's coffin ("bury her secrets with her body," he bellows).  That leaves her with the diary's one English-language segment, a business card to a Russian restaurant owned by an older gentleman by the name of Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl).    

We have already seen Semyon and he is not always a gentleman, but no matter.  We have also already seen two ruffians who have intimate dealings with Semyon, his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and Semyon's "chauffeur" Nikolai Luzhin (a fabulous Viggo Mortensen).  Anna notices Nikolai when he, leaning ever so casually against a street lamp, attempts a pickup line about why she would maintain such an antiquated Russian scooter ("Sentimental value?" he says, "I've heard of that").  To her credit as a woman of good instinct, she wants nothing to do with such a lowlife; but to her severe discredit she interprets Semyon as somehow unattached to the odd form of commerce trafficked off restaurant property – which makes this a fine time for an aside.  I mentioned earlier that Eastern Promises runs on two principles that both intersect and solidify into distinct entities, and the first has to do with Russia's most notorious criminal network.  I cannot possibly pretend to know details of the true inner workings of vory v zakone, and the Slavist who claims otherwise is either a fraud or not quite what he appears to be.  Some say that the thieves do not observe any code except profit and pleasure; others deem the whole structure the inflated hype of legend; still others admit to the group's significance from the Brezhnev through the Yeltsin era, influence and power that have now waned.  Whatever the case, bandits, killers, and crooks share the very consistent habit of promulgating a strict set of rules then violating them whenever emotion or advantage dictates that they do so.  Kirill in particular evinces a form of paranoid psychopathy that almost compromises the serene confidence with which Nikolai handles all his tasks – most of which, it should be said, have nothing to do with driving.  So when Semyon explains his haggard appearance to Anna by confessing that, “last night I broke my rules and had some vodka,” we sense that the rules exist more as a challenge than a restriction – and in this respect Semyon is certainly a gambling man.

But it is the second and more controversial principle that distinguishes Eastern Promises from all other gangster movies ever made.  The premise, divulged in interviews by the director, addresses the question of sexuality with a frankness that would have been impossible even thirty years ago in mainstream cinema.  Evidence of this approach will be visible on your screen for seven steamy minutes in what will likely become one of the most mentioned fight scenes in film history, but there is much more to the homoerotic underpinnings than what meets our jaded eyes.  Kirill wonders about Nikolai's sexuality, which Nikolai proves to him in a grunting display of indifference with one of the lovelier goods being trafficked, and Nikolai reports Kirill's sexual preference directly to his father.  Tatiana's diary also has a few choice words about an ordeal that again implies we are watching somewhat of a pantomime – appropriately, I suppose, given the multiple games afoot.  And how does Anna figure into this nasty web of lies?  The diary and baby Anna saves become the things she never had – a Russian childhood and, as a few lines of dialogue betray, a successful pregnancy; the journal and infant also conspire to steer our plot to its logical conclusion.  Anna was not metaphorically "buried in a coal mining town" like all of Tatiana's family, but has enjoyed all the privileges of legal immigration, which probably ignites in her good heart more than a little guilt.  Not that guilt really gets you anywhere in London.   

Tuesday
May072013

A History of Violence

Even if we inveterate cinéastes shun all interpretative methods in favor of pure enjoyment, we still have our expectations.  We know what happens to people who claim on the phone to know a secret that they can only discuss in private; we know what lovers forbidden to see one another by class, race, family or religion will choose to do with their fates; and we know what eventually happens to the gun we see in the first act hanging innocuously on the wall.  Cinema, more than literature, grooms our expectations by playing with what we know about human tendencies and what we yearn for in artistic expression.  In books, a character may dream or rant in the most abstract of colors and shapes, and a talented author will make us dream or rant along with him.  In film, however, we are invariably subjected to the ineluctable modality of whatever stage set the director has selected (or whatever computerized mirages corral our imagination, although those films are generally of lesser quality).  So even if we do recognize all the actors in the trailer, what is shown of the characters' personalities in the trailer should be a minute sliver of what is revealed in the film.  We may pique ourselves on our ability to glean the alpha and omega of what will happen from a two-minute foretaste – but that just makes a complete reversal of expectation all the more appealing.  It also brings us to this fine film.

The stage is Millbrook, Indiana, which might not exist under precisely that appellation but exists under thousands of others.  Millbrook and its working-class name embody the prototypical small town, the last bastion of purity in an urbanized world given to decay, dissolute whims, and Darwinian struggle.  Towns such as Millbrook need humble venues where everyone can make sure that nothing has changed, or if something has, that everyone knows about it.  One such nexus is a harmless diner run by a mild-mannered man named Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen).  Tom has a loving and attractive wife, Edie (Maria Bello), an intelligent teenage son, Jack (Ashton Holmes), and Sarah, a young daughter in blonde curls.  Edie's work as attorney relieves Tom of having to beef up the diner's clientele, a near-impossibility given the town's size and Tom's curious lack of ambition.  Indeed, Edie's attraction to a man who was allegedly raised in Seattle by adoptive parents and has gone essentially nowhere in life tips us off that matters may not be what they seem.  That and one notable incident: two hoodlums, arguably a father-and-son duo, truck into town and decide to make the diner their latest example of bloodthirsty mayhem.  Talking to each other before they enter, and in a horrific scene at the film's beginning, they appear to be financially motivated.  But the evil they display suggests otherwise, and there is no small gleam in their eyes when they hold up the diner (to no one's protests; small-town pacifism must be maintained) and threaten to kill one of the customers for no reason whatsoever.  That is, until Tom springs into action and shoots them both as any trained soldier might.  Except that, to the best of anyone's knowledge, he has had no such training. 

Tom quickly becomes a hero and his face reluctantly makes every local news program and paper in the greater Millbrook area and, as we will soon find out, beyond.  How on earth did he pull it off?  "Anyone would have done the same thing," he mumbles as he walks by a disappointed journalist, who knows that is precisely what no one else would have done.  On the heels of Tom's fifteen minutes of heroism, three men in expensive suits pull up to the diner in one of those large, dark, American cars produced in small towns but never driven in them.  They hail from Philadelphia and are fronted by a nasty piece of work named Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris).  Fogarty and his goons obviously care little for the rule of law, which would explain why they do not hesitate to tell their server that while his legal name might indeed be Tom Stall, he was born Joey Cusack.  After this new name seems to punctuate every one of Fogarty's statements, Tom corrects him, as does Edie.  Chuckling smugly, Fogarty then removes his sunglasses to unveil a scar we would not wish on our worst enemy, the handiwork of barbed wire and, well, Joey.  The visitors leave only to shadow the family until Jack runs into a bit of trouble in school.  After having fended off bullies with his wits for so long, he beats the onions out of them in front of a hallway of awed coevals.  Suspended for this act of violence, a lack of self-control that appalls Tom, Jack shows neither pride nor remorse: what he did was just ("the best thing that could ever happen to those two").  Yet Tom sees the matter differently, and every inch of his face seems to cry out "How could my son do this?"  Then Fogarty and company show up on the Stalls' front lawn with Jack in hand and we learn more about what Tom can and cannot do.

There is a third act, and it involves Joey's brother Richie (a Donegaled William Hurt), a dyed-in-the-wool Mafioso who has the mansion and armed detail to prove it.  My strict policy of non-disclosure prevents me from talking at length, but a few sidelights prior to this encounter are worth mentioning.  Lesser films would have the local sheriff gunned down in the middle of the deserted country road on which he pulls over Fogarty's Lincoln towncar; instead, the sheriff is allowed to have the last word ("this is a nice town with nice people; we take care of our people here") and walk away righteously.  When Edie begins to have her doubts about Tom, she asks him whether he used to kill for pleasure or money, a question to which no answer is ever provided.  Nor do we ever know what other impressionable teenagers ever thought  of Jack's outburst or whether they chalked it up to his family's tendency to rage when cornered since, after the fight scene, Jack is never again shown in school – almost as if he has now become a man.  But before the fantastic final scene when Tom returns home to a wordless dinner with his stunned family (any other film would have saturated the moment with histrionics), there is the matter of Richie.  Joey and Richie, the names of two little boys who obviously mean no harm.  Joey and Richie greet each other in a way that is so unusual they must be related, because they forget that anyone else could be watching.  When Richie boasts of having decided Joey's fate, he means exactly the opposite of what he says, and Joey understands the charade but disagrees with the method.  Yet what really sets A History of Violence apart is its refusal to condone, glamorize, or celebrate the criminal life.  Criminality is merely treated the way it should be, as an irrevocable pact with dark forces.  Once certain facts seem to implicate Tom his family does not defend him or love him any more, because who they loved never really existed.  So if you believe the accusations that Tom used to be Joey and Joey used to kill people, and that Joey killed himself and became Tom, the logic becomes devastating.  Never once do we really feel bad for Tom, because in truth, we shouldn't.  He may have chosen one path and then another, but in the end he has had one soul and one life, regardless of who he thinks he is.  "When you dream, are you still Joey?" asks Richie, who already has his answer.   But we don't need to see Tom's dreams to have ours.

Friday
Dec072012

M. Butterfly

Early on in this film a discussion arises about the threadbare plot of this opera involving an American sailor and the sad, lonely, and beautiful Japanese woman who pledges to him her unmerited love.  As the participants, a European male and Asian female, slowly concede that Madame Butterfly smacks of imperialist degradation, an analogy is made that I have to quote in all its preposterousness:

It's one of your favorite fantasies, isn't it?  The submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man .... Consider it this way: what would you say if a blonde cheerleader fell in love with a short Japanese businessman?  He marries her and then goes home for three years, during which time she prays to his picture, and turns down marriage from a young Kennedy.  Then when she learns her husband has remarried, she kills herself.   Now I believe you would consider this girl to be a deranged idiot, correct?  But because it's an Oriental who kills herself for a Westerner, you find her beautiful ... the point is, it's the music not the story.

This analogy might work today, or even twenty years ago, but it certainly could not apply to 1964 Beijing, nor would it mean a drachma to a French diplomat, who would probably think a cheerleader was a firebrand rabble-rouser.  The anachronism is so egregious that one might generously consider its inclusion as a hint: the person troating the phrase is as fraudulent and misinforming as the statement itself, and the person accepting this argumentation is an utter fool.  Which would make a great deal of sense as the speaker is Madame Song (John Lone) and the listener a French diplomat by the name of René Gallimard (Jeremy Irons).

We meet Gallimard as he shuffles papers for the French Embassy in his capacity as its bookkeeper; we meet his cold if fetching wife Jeanne (Barbara Sukowa); and then we glimpse his nighttime activities, which at the beginning of the film entail taking in an opera – but not in that order.  Gallimard attends Madame Butterfly somewhat out of character.  "I've got one or two people around here thinking I'm profoundly cultured," he confesses to Frau Baden, an older, well-connected German woman, as good an excuse as any for his ingenuousness.  When she first floats into our purview, Madame Butterfly remains at a distance; it is therefore incumbent upon Irons to convey the restrained yet undeniable madness of love at first sight.  At what we now term the after-party, Gallimard buttonholes the diva and begins the awkward advances of an overeager admirer.  "I've never seen a more convincing performance," he croaks.  To which Madame Song asks whether he meant her performance as a Japanese woman, and then launches into the political agenda punctuated by the cheerleader reference.  The East-West dynamic, surely a horse killed a thousand times over, informs the rest of their conversation.  They part, he reluctantly, she at just the preordained moment, with Madame Song's recommendation that Gallimard attend the Beijing Opera to hear the real product.  The first act closes with his return home to Jeanne, and Gallimard gets more than a little discomfited when he sees his wife fanning herself, looking in a mirror, and singing the aria to the opera that is the soundtrack to his obsession.

What happens next may only make sense to plain minds if one knows the true story on which M. Butterfly is based – a source that has been ignored by many reviewers.  Ignored, I should say, for one uniform reason: Madame Song is clearly not who she claims to be; that is, to even the untrained eye she is far too masculine in voice and appearance to sustain any sort of duplicity.  Even without foreknowledge of the events, this distinction strikes the viewer but not the protagonist, which is one of the great conventions of drama.  Gallimard and Song begin what would be deemed a usual affair, express in turn the usual reservations and passions, but in closed quarters do not pursue the usual pursuits.  The love scenes – not the right word, the scenes in which the characters moan, fondle one another, and moan again – are shot fully clothed.  Is this because Gallimard truly respects Song's shame or based on some other conviction?  Whatever the case, Gallimard is rewarded for his ostensible purity in an extraordinary way: his Embassy colleagues, whose expenses he has been questioning since he arrived, are discovered by the imperious Ambassador Toulon (Ian Richardson).  Toulon does not like backslapping junkets, and of all the charges one can hurl at Gallimard, he can never be accused of either humor or frivolity.  Irons's demeanor and gesticulation will remind the attentive moviegoer of this masterpiece, released only a year before, as will the suspicion of other levers at work.  The levers come in the form of a second androgynous Chinese character just as, curiously enough, Gallimard is appointed head of Embassy intelligence with the assignment of monitoring a certain "conflict in Vietnam" with the Americans.

The gender issues in M. Butterfly provide catnip to modern theorists who debase everything and everyone and end up just demolishing their own credibility – yet the point is quite another.  The difference in gender, a crude and obvious conceit, could easily apply to any relationship in which the appearance of love gave way to heartbreak.  “What I loved was the lie," says Gallimard, "the perfect lie," a sentiment that could describe any romantic misfortune.  Gallimard beds another woman and, upon seeing her sprawled in waiting, quips, "you look exactly as I imagined you would under your clothes," leading to an ironic confession to Song.  In another magnificent scene, we see Song working in a quarry as a megaphone condemns all "artists, writers, and intellectuals" to manual labor so that they may know "the flinty soil of China's revolutionary future."  But the film's oddest conceit has to do with our allegedly French characters.  Both Toulon and Gallimard not only possess perfectly clipped and refined British speech, they also react to emotion and empire with the same morbid indifference.  In fact, it is empire that stirs Gallimard more greatly when he oversteps his expertise about Southeast Asian politics and seeks the Ambassador's approbation.  Casting actors more prone to the vicissitudes of human feeling might have led a greater number of critics to buy into the whole charade, although we may again be generous and see this ploy as intentional.  It is fair to state, however, that the very ghastly last scene, while dramatically correct, should not have taken place physically even if, mentally, the change occurred ages ago.  Perhaps that is why as Song is being led away by army officers she tells Gallimard that, “whatever happens, the days I spent with you were the only days I truly existed."  If only we knew more about the days before that.