Like David Cronenberg's other films, Eastern Promises is about the form of evil, not its content. His films are sensory screeches rather than intellectual sermonsby Mark Cousins / December 22, 2007 / Leave a comment
In Woody Allen’s 2005 movie Match Point, Londoners saw the London Eye, Tower Bridge and the Houses of Parliament—their city as tourist metonym. Those who attended the glitzy premiere of David Cronenberg’s latest movie, Eastern Promises, which opened the London film festival, were confronted by a very different city: dank alleyways, a fetid bit of the Thames, a nondescript hospital and service entrances instead of front doors—monumental urbanism.
It’s tempting to see the former as fake and the latter as real, but as you watch Cronenberg’s vision unfold, you realise that Eastern Promises is not a response to Woody Allen’s blindness to the particularities of 21st-century London. Although it was written by Steven Knight, who also wrote Stephen Frears’s far more realistic Dirty Pretty Things, Cronenberg’s film isn’t interested in the specifics of place; but then again neither were The Fly, Naked Lunch or Crash. Cronenberg’s films could be set almost anywhere. Excise the markers of individual cities, and they work as universal nightmares.
But this is not to say that physical reality is of no interest to him. Far from it. Like his North American compatriots David Lynch and Matthew Barney, he is deeply interested in texture. Though Eastern Promises is not his most visually distinctive film, he none the less appeals to our senses through the blonde softness of Naomi Watts’s character, a midwife who investigates the death of a Russian teenage girl, and her contrast to the black hardness and muscularity of the Russian chauffeur who is connected to the girl’s murderers. In one signature scene, the chauffeur, played by Viggo Mortensen, asks for a hairdryer to defrost a frozen human body so that he can peel open its jacket and remove a wallet. We can sense Cronenberg’s relish at the involuntary way we imagine the feel of marble-hard flesh as it softens, and smell its decay.
Add this relish to the textural quality of Cronenberg’s movies, and his rejection of the specifics of location, and you realise that while his films are full of wrongdoing, he isn’t interested in the wrongness of wronging so much as its repulsiveness. In person, Cronenberg is a liberal Canadian, but in his cinema he takes the wrongness of murder or gangsterism as read, and instead is intrigued by how nice, blonde, decent, liberal people like Naomi Watts’s midwife (or we the audience) react to it as material. Cronenberg’s films…