UK / Canada, 2007
Review by Chiranjit Goswami
Posted on 23 September 2007
Source Alliance 35mm print
Categories The 32nd Toronto International Film Festival
“Body. Singular.” These words reverberate with candor even while delivered curtly by our maternal heroine, Anna, as she corrects the grammar of her antiquated Russian grandfather. Deftly played by Naomi Watts, Anna serves as the viewer’s primary vessel in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises and I doubt any of Cronenberg’s characters have so bluntly announced the director’s famous fixations. Then again, few of Cronenberg’s preceding films have been so conventional. Anna’s candid declaration serves to reassure the viewer that we are venturing into identifiable thematic territory even while we are stranded in unfamiliar surroundings. Considering David Cronenberg’s renowned preoccupation with the human anatomy, perhaps it’s appropriate that it’s exceedingly difficult to detach Eastern Promises from the director’s previous body of work. Alas, the familiarity of Eastern Promises is both a blessing and a curse.
Having completed his inspection and exhibition of the violence so intricately woven into the lifestyle of the American heartland, and after surviving the accompanying adulation and suffering through the inevitable recoil, it appears that London was calling David Cronenberg. Surprisingly for the first time in his career, Cronenberg decided to shoot a film entirely outside of his Canadian comfort-zone, though he chose to continue his ongoing collaboration with star Viggo Mortensen. Thus, Cronenberg’s new film, Eastern Promises, has an unmistakable familiarity in terms of mood, tone, and content to Cronenberg’s previous project, A History of Violence, despite the divergent settings of the two films.
Saturated in an almost perpetual downpour, Eastern Promises begins during the Christmas holiday season by descending upon a Russian barbershop situated on the recognizable cobblestone streets of London. Once inside the confines we witness a rather messy murder that becomes even more morally muddled as we learn more details about its participants. While the ghastly scene immediately grabs the audiences’ attention, it’s actually the opening sweep down from the night sky that conveys Cronenberg’s key intentions. The ordinary descent onto a London street appears fairly standard, but it signifies the viewer’s position as an outsider encroaching onto foreign soil and into an enclosed ethnic community. Thus, the modest camera movement and the ensuing slaughter announces Cronenberg’s fascination with the discord spawned from an infringement, whether the violation under scrutiny is illustrated by a physical intrusion, a cultural invasion, a biological infection, or perhaps by the presence of a paranormal infestation if we choose to view significance in the constant mentions of the supernatural within Steve Knight’s otherwise straightforward screenplay.
Knight’s references to unearthly creatures such as angels, devils, and walking-wolves are offset by assertions that many of the characters we encounter in Eastern Promises are already dead and it’s absolutely no coincidence that these departed souls were all born on – and apparently buried beneath – Soviet soil. The declaration of ostensible death is made by Tatiana, a pregnant teenaged girl we briefly meet after Cronenberg whisks us away from his barbaric opening scene. We watch as Tatiana wanders into a pharmacy where her fatigued pleas, delivered in a Russian accent, are noticeably incompatible with the East-Indian staff and patrons. However, before we can even identify Tatiana as the outlier within this world, her body decides to expel the figurative alien entity nestled within her womb. Anna, a midwife at a nearby hospital, delivers a healthy baby girl to Tatiana, but the stress of childbirth proves overwhelming to Tatiana’s damaged adolescent body. After Tatiana hemorrhages to death, Anna finds Tatiana’s diary and decides to investigate the teenager’s origins in an effort to ensure that the baby is safely placed with family members rather than in foster care.
Luckily, Anna is half-Russian and her cantankerous Russian uncle, Stepan, may be able to translate Tatiana’s diary. Stepan might be family to Anna and her mother, Helen, but he remains a foreign presence within their lives, as his old-fashioned Russian outlook conflicts with their Western attitudes. The detachment and barricade between family members is best illustrated when Cronenberg introduces Helen and Stepan to his audience, as the director positions Anna and Helen within the kitchen in close proximity to one another, but segregates Stepan to the background, almost as a distant presence enclosed within the frame of the partition between the rooms. Stepan’s archaic attitude and severe superstitions initially prevent him from assisting his niece in her quest for answers, as he gruffly questions her morality by asking Anna if she “always rob[s] the bodies of the dead?” before refusing to read any more of Tatiana’s diary. Of course, Stepan’s question is far more perceptive than he realizes as we soon comprehend that Anna’s kind intentions towards Tatiana’s baby girl disguise her own morally-ambiguous desires to retain the child as a substitute for the baby she lost recently. It’s sympathetic, but also disconcerting terrain that Cronenberg navigates us through, as within a few days we discover that Anna has even named Tetiana’s baby, Christina, after the holiday season that surrounds the story.
As further emphasis of the expanse between family members, Stephan ruins a casual Holiday meal between the trio by inquiring about the absence of Anna’s ex-boyfriend, who happens to be black. Stepan doesn’t hesitate to use the ex-boyfriend’s race as an explanation for his desertion and quickly demonstrates his disapproval of mixed-race relationships by expounding upon his theory that a mixture of genetic material across races is unnatural. As proof of his hypothesis, Stepan cites Anna’s miscarriage as an example, without any comprehension or concern of how offensive and preposterous his comments appear. As distasteful as Stepan’s comments are, they further accentuate the archaic attitudes of the Russian society that shaped Stepan’s mentality. Stepan’s comments also provide another instance of a perceived violation that causes discord, since his obsolete opinions of race represent a viewpoint that believes mixing different races amounts to a biological violation that can only generate unstable results. Although Stepan’s comments are ignorant and unpleasant, his verbal transgressions become somewhat frivolous once the family is confronted by the physical violation that Tatiana continually endured.
Seeking another method to learn more about Tatiana, Anna stumbles upon a business card amongst Tatiana’s belongings that leads her to visit a lush local Trans-Siberian restaurant. Upon her arrival, Anna is immediately greeted by the restaurant’s proprietor, Semyon, a fatherly figure who warmly welcomes Anna once he realizes she is of Russian ancestry. Draped in lavish crimson and golden hues, steeped in traditional décor, and buzzing with family celebrations, Semyon’s establishment is actually the London headquarters for the vory v zakone, a dreaded alliance of criminals that essentially serves as the Russian mafia. Cronenberg’s casting of Armin Mueller-Stahl as Semyon allows the character to simultaneously radiate an appealing tenderness and exude a noticeable undercurrent of menace. Indeed, once Semyon grasps the reason for Anna’s visit, he offers to translate Tatiana’s words, but cunningly requests that Anna bring him the diary. Watts is skilled enough to convey Anna’s initial hesitation, especially through her wary reactions to Semyon’s increasingly personal questions, though ultimately she will partially relent to his suggestion out of necessity.
Though their relationship starts as amicable with an almost paternal tinge to their interactions, it’s quite obvious that both Anna and Semyon perceive the other to be a threat to the stability within their lives, though both make the mistake of underestimating the other party. Clearly, within these early scenes, the filmmakers have positioned Anna as the intruder that breaks the accepted harmony within this surreptitious Soviet sect. Such an impression is apparently not lost on Helen, as she later emphatically pleads with her daughter that “this isn’t our world! We are ordinary people.” As if to further demonstrate Anna’s naïveté and desperation, Cronenberg then allows his heroine to be swindled through the most basic methods, by the very men she misguidedly trusts.
Interestingly, at a later point within the narrative, Semyon finds it necessary to intrude into Anna’s world by visiting the hospital where Anna works, thereby breaking the sanctity, safety, and purity that the hospital provides by infecting the location with his veiled malevolence. Semyon’s visit to the maternity ward is a particularly tense and troubling intrusion, since the hospital supposedly serves as a secure location for both Anna and Christine, especially within a film that predominantly isolates its action to a few select locations that the characters appear determined to keep private.
Anna’s preliminary visit with Semyon marks the point at which Cronenberg’s film becomes thoroughly immersed within the ritualized Russian-immigrant underworld that Semyon governs. With shrewd strategies and ruthless policies, cloaked by his outwardly gentle façade, Semyon presides over a gangland inhabited by banished thugs and migrant whores that Scotland Yard is eager to export. Thus, it’s difficult to avoid the perception that this collection of intruding Russian-criminals serves as an infection upon Britain society. Such a viewpoint is reinforced when an underling proposes that the Vors move back to Russia to escape the debauched culture of the Western world, only to have Semyon admit that his criminal crew has effectively been exiled to an island as if to avoid further infestation of contemporary Russian society.
Unfortunately, Anna and her family soon learn that Tatiana could not avoid being contaminated and exploited by the Vors. As the family members rifle through the pages of Anna’s diary, desperate to uncover answers, the audience ascertains the same information via Tatiana’s voice-over, which Cronenberg inserts sporadically throughout the film. Regrettably, while Tatiana’s voice imparts crucial background and conveys her innocence, its execution feels distracting, clumsy, and intrusive (which is perhaps apt given the interests of the film). Nonetheless, we learn that Tatiana was lured to London with deceitful promises and after having her dewy preconceptions of the Western world shattered, Tatiana served as a child-prostitute for the Vors, frequently enduring the indignity and torture of sexual abuse under her handlers. Eventually, Anna discovers that Christine was conceived while Tatiana suffered through the physical trauma of rape. Though further investigation is required before her attacker can be properly identified, the appalling conclusion seems rather inevitable.
Strangely, while Anna undoubtedly serves as the protagonist of the story, after she introduces us to the wicked world of the Vors, the subsequent narrative primarily relegates her to the role of an outside observer. Instead, the focus of the film turns towards Semyon’s enigmatic mafia chauffeur, named Nikolai. We first encounter Nikolai as Anna exits Semyon’s sanctuary and jumps onto her vintage Russian motorcycle, thereby drawing the attention of the brethren that inhabit Semyon’s empire, including Nikolai, who appears more interested in Anna than his current cohort. Impeccably embodied by Viggo Mortensen, Nikolai remains an ambiguous figure throughout the narrative since his intensions and motivations are so murky, especially as he repeatedly displays his loyalty to his superiors while offering solace to Anna during her quest.
Nikolai represents another instance of Cronenberg concentrating on a character struggling with his identity, divided between the conflicting personalities he chooses to occupy. Due in part to the casting of Mortensen in both roles, one’s assessment of Nikolai could be greatly informed by prior experience with Tom/Joey, the runaway rogue from A History of Violence. In fact it’s almost instantly assumed that Nikolai is experienced in brutality and is just as proficient at eradicating and disposing of potential aggressors, simply because of our knowledge of Tom’s dormant abilities. Yet, Mortensen and Cronenberg decide to imbue Nikolai with far greater discipline and authority than his muffled counterpart in A History of Violence. Although Tom/Joey was resigned to his monotonous and muted personality in order to avoid detection and disappear into his environment, he often appeared incapable of controlling his anatomy and was frequently baffled by the reactions of his body. Meanwhile, Nikolai is permanently in command of his conduct and his subdued demeanor and exhausted expression conceal an innate comprehension of his circumstances that Tom/Joey was never able to attain. Nikolai doesn’t just want to survive within his surroundings, he appears confident enough to conquer this barbaric underworld.
Constantly clad in a glossy slate-grey suit – his gaze concealed behind sinister shades, his hair slicked back – Nikolai is certainly one of Mortensen’s more charismatic and complex characters, alternating between exhibitions of humor, compassion, guile, and ferocity, all the while resolved to his perpetually solemn state. Thankfully the performance remains restrained, with Mortensen apparently concentrating on enticing the audience through meticulous movements, precise expressions, and impressively fluent Russian dialogue (it’s even amusing to listen to him pronounce “sent-yee-mentul vawl-you”) rather than through grand gestures and mawkish moments.
Instead, Cronenberg reserves the gaudy role within Eastern Promises for Vincent Cassel, who I’m starting to believe is France’s answer to Jude Law given the actor’s propensity for portraying men guided by their libido, devoid of morality, and dominated by their depravity. Cassel attacks the role of Kirill with implausible verve, though it’s less of a performance than it is an incredible discharge of vulgarity and volatility. Cassel doesn’t even bother to mimic a Russian accent, relying heavily upon the fact that his English already sounds broadly European.
As Semyon’s prodigal son, Kirill quickly becomes a weed within a kingdom that his father has scrupulously cultivated. Fittingly, it is Nikolai’s responsibility to restrict Kirill’s crass conduct to a manageable level and protect Semyon’s successor from his own idiocy. Given the dynamics of their relationship, an intense bond is already present between Nikolai and Kirill when we first encounter the pair, and the two men are nearly inseparable throughout the film. A bizarre intimacy soon develops between the two men involving a casual flirtation within their interactions. However, Cronenberg will firmly maintain his fascination with the concept of intrusion by constructing a scenario in which Kirill foolishly violates the customary boundaries of his relationship with Nikolai.
The overt homoerotic tension becomes almost uncomfortably palpable during a critical scene in which Kirill adamantly demands that Nikolai demonstrate his heterosexuality so that Kirill may verify that Nikolai isn’t a homosexual. After some protests, Nikolai consents to the “examination” and it’s no accident that the shattered female that he deliberately selects as his partner chillingly resembles Anna, or that he eventually becomes determined to save her from the inevitable toll that her lifestyle requires. The subsequent scene is appropriately frigid and soulless, as Nikolai fulfills his requirements with an almost clinical effectiveness while Kirill observes and scrutinizes his technique from the doorway. Upon completion of the examination, Kirill lingers a little too long, delivering a backhanded compliment to Nikolai regarding his performance that barely masks Kirill’s noticeable disappointment that Nikolai successfully finished his assigned task. Despite the initial dynamics of the scenario, it now becomes apparent that Kirill has actually exposed himself, and Nikolai promptly shows his clout by ordering Kirill to leave. After this incident, Nikolai never wavers from an opportunity to ruthlessly manipulate Kirill using subtle methods, taking full advantage of Kirill’s infatuation.
Afterwards, we discover that Kirill’s reckless and wasteful behavior has resulted in an unforgivable indiscretion against the Vor monarchy, leaving Semyon to handle the repercussions. Nikolai attempts to defend Kirill’s actions to Semyon, justifying the rash decision by confiding to the patriarch that the victim routinely ridiculed Kirill as a potential homosexual and thereby tarnished the reputation of the entire family. “It was right thing to do” exclaims Nikolai, reinforcing the terror that homosexuality inspires within this misogynist society. It quickly becomes apparent that, within this fraternity of felons, being gay may be the most reprehensible violation to their cherished code of criminal conduct and Nikolai’s report seemingly makes Semyon seriously consider whether or not his son is worth protecting. In fact, upon hearing these persistent allegations, Semyon appears resolved to accept their accuracy without objections, perhaps remembering the details of the horrifying incidents reported within Tatiana’s diary and relying heavily upon his own suspicions of his son’s inclinations.
At this point the audience has already witnessed the measures Nikolai and Kirill have taken to deal with the consequences of Kirill’s retribution. Unbeknownst to Semyon, in an earlier scene, Kirill and Nikolai secretly dispose of the body that could connect the family to the murder. Arriving at an associate’s establishment late at night, Nikolai has the opportunity to calmly show off his skills as a mortician. Once presented with the frozen corpse, Nikolai casually requests a hair-dryer to thaw out the flesh so that he can effortlessly carve away any identification marks and decides to lighten the mood by making jokes.
The scene openly acknowledges that Cronenberg is ready to resume his unrelenting examination of the human body and will be unapologetic about his preoccupation. In fact, after he’s finished defrosting the cadaver, Nikolai cocks his head towards the camera to warn his companions that they “might want to leave room,” but he might as well be cautioning the audience. Within moments Cronenberg supplies the viewer with unflinching close-ups of bone and flesh being sliced through with household hardware, allowing us to hear every crunch and snap without providing a barrier to make the sight and sound more bearable. The only possible reprieve, or at least distraction, is the hilarious image of Nikolai extinguishing a cigarette on his tongue before nonchalantly returning to the gruesome task that he has been assigned.
Indeed, Nikolai’s talents and intelligence are soon noticed by Semyon, who recommends that his lowly chauffeur be promoted and granted official admission into the vory v zakone. Before he is allowed to “receive his stars,” Nikolai must endure an interrogation by his superiors where he is stripped down to his skin so that the members of the Vor nobility may inspect his tattoos. One of the fundamental concepts within Eastern Promises is that a Russian criminal’s personally history can be written on his body in the form of the tattoos he received while imprisoned in the Gulag. Thus, we realize that Nikolai’s identity has been permanently chronicled onto his flesh, with each mark recording another sin and certain segments of his skin maintaining their purity so that he could receive the signifiers of the Vors’ blessing. Within these interrogation scenes, Cronenberg draws attention to Mortensen’s physique by cloaking his lead-actor is darkness, thereby bestowing a luminous quality to Mortensen’s skin.
The initiation ritual thus turns quite personal as Nikolai must prove his loyalty to the society he wished entrance into by renouncing his past. Apparently having prepared through his life for this moment, Nikolai announces to the council that “I am already dead. I died when I was 15. Now I live in the Zone all the time.” It’s a bold proclamation that impresses the various Vor leaders and earns their favor. When such comments are coupled with Nikolai’s cigarette extinguishing, one wonders whether Nikolai is so adept at handling the dead because he already considers himself deceased. Afterwards, Nikolai is granted his star tattoos and Cronenberg again draws attention towards Mortensen’s physique during a somber scene in which we watch their application. Certainly these scenes highlight the inherent strength of the male physical form and give Nikolai greater corporeal authority within the frame when surrounded so many withered old men.
However, Cronenberg is always careful to also display the fragility of the human form. Thus, once Nikolai is required to shed the sharp suit that serves as his armor and thereby expose his physique, he also discloses his vulnerability to any potential adversaries. It’s not long before some of his comrades take advantage of his susceptibility, luring him to Turkish bathhouse under false pretenses. The fight sequence that follows serves as the riveting climax of Eastern Promises, and mingles the film’s homoerotic subtext with Cronenberg’s interest with the human body. Against the pristine white walls of the bathhouse and cloaked within steam, the entire sequence reverberates with intensity as a nude Nikolai, who has been offered as a necessary sacrifice, attempts to escape the clutches of two henchmen who arrive dressed in black and wielding small, somewhat phallic, curved knives. In effect, what we are witnessing amounts to an administrative decision to violate Nikolai’s trust that will be accomplished through a physical violation of Nikolai’s unprotected body.
Despite the hype created by Mortensen’s nudity, the sequence is rather reticent in terms of superficial titillation, but it certainly delivers a spectacle of butchery and brutality. Any homoerotic subtext that has been simmering till now forcefully bursts to the surface, as the entire sequence involves a trio of males grasping and clawing at one another, fervently plunging knives into each other, causing a flood of bodily fluids, and leaving its participants writhing on the bathhouse floor, exhausted and sweaty. The intimacy of the knife fight is unsettling enough, but the carnage created by Cronenberg becomes almost absurdly excruciating. As the goons carve through Nikolai’s flesh, slicing through the significance of his tattoos, creating fresh scars in chaotic patterns throughout his torso, Cronenberg’s methods elicited more than a few giddy shrieks of horror from audience members in the screening I attended.
Perhaps Cronenberg is taking a tad too much credit for the significance of the violence he includes within his most recent films, but his methods of presentation are definitely steady and unflinching. During the final blows of the bathhouse fight, after the combatants and audience members are already disturbed and disorientated, where many other filmmakers may have used numerous cuts to confuse the events, Cronenberg chooses to keep all the action in one unbroken shot, making certain his viewers have no buffer to hide behind while the watch the slaughter on screen. If we are going to cheer our hero for his survival skills, Cronenberg will not allow us to disregard and discount the brutality of his deeds.
As well, unlike many other contemporary filmmakers, Cronenberg also provides a connection between the few moments of violence he chooses to display and the larger themes his intends to explore. Indeed, Cronenberg’s violence has thematic consequences, as Nikolai escapes the bathhouse massacre a different man than the one who entered, as if his attackers have distorted Nikolai’s identity by ripping through his flesh and tainting the symbols inscribed upon his skin. Knowing Cronenberg’s past practices, it’s not groundless to state that Nikolai may have been figuratively infected by the evil he has encountered. While he recovers from the attack and his wounds heal, we discover Nikolai is also an outsider infringing upon the Vors who has habitually violated the constraints of his assignment. However, Nikolai is reluctant to accept his amputation from the operation for which he has bled. Apparently unwilling to bow to any authority figure, Nikolai proudly unveils the symbols of allegiance that now adorn his skin, as his superior reacts in horrified exasperation. Instead – using a strategy that could only feel amusingly appropriate within a mafia thriller directed by Cronenberg – Nikolai commands his handler to incarcerate Semyon using biological evidence. It now becomes clear Nikolai is no longer the reserved subordinate who serves as a calming influence on the wanton heir to the monarchy, but instead seeks to assume control over the throne and brandish its accompanying power.
After overcoming some last minute obstacles that don’t feel exceptionally distressing or troublesome, Eastern Promises concludes with Nikolai delivering a rather manipulative ultimatum to Kirill, which sounds like a lover’s demand, before the two men reunite using a tender embrace. Willing to forfeit any future with Anna so that she can live within the traditional domestic ideal, Nikolai is free to assume authority via a relatively bloodless coup. However, conceivably in homage to The Godfather Part II, Eastern Promises final image presents the viewer with a slowly paced pull-in towards an isolated Nikolai, now a solitary czar within an empire that still may consider him a trespasser. Nikolai remains as unknown entity in many ways, since his allegiance is ambiguous, his motivations are divergent, and exactly what he ponders while secluded in a booth within his restaurant headquarters is a mystery.
It’s an interesting closing image, especially when compared to closing moments of A History of Violence, where we find the Stall family having weathered the storm of hostility that invaded their community, but with each member isolated to their own frame, unable or unwilling to face one another after having uncovered their own indecency. Essentially, with their patriarch’s identity exposed, the Stalls appear reluctant to contend with the uncomfortable reality of their situation as a family. Conversely, when pressed by Anna about his identity, Nikolai refuses to divulge any information and consequently must deal with the ramifications alone and the burden appears to be wearisome.
Avoiding a comparison to A History of Violence while evaluating Eastern Promises is nearly impossible, given that the two films share so many characteristics. Both films are built around a prominent Viggo Mortensen performance and both projects allow Cronenberg to insert his thematic obsessions into efficient, but otherwise generic, genre assignments. Both films are also carefully conceived and meticulously sculpted, crafting a very specific mood to their events, and featuring a patient pace and rigorous narrative abruptly interrupted by exquisite bursts of graphic mayhem. Both films also submerge themselves into the atmosphere of the communities they explore, fearlessly venturing towards the boundaries of caricature. Finally, both films apply the peculiar framing that only Cronenberg appears capable of achieving. Armed with a wide-angle lens, Cronenberg seems to specifically position his camera at a unique distance and angle in order to create and uneasy sensation within the viewer. Thus, even the most mundane close-up is unnerving, and one cannot shake the impression that something unknown is occurring underneath the surface.
Nevertheless, though the film is definitely captivating, it’s difficult not to suffer a tinge of disappointment while watching Eastern Promises, as Cronenberg’s latest film feels more standard than his preceding project. For all the praise Cronenberg has enjoyed regarding his treatment of bloodshed, Eastern Promises appears satisfied with fulfilling its requirements, rather than challenging audience expectations. Whereas A History of Violence provided gratification before administering a startling rebuke, Eastern Promises merely complicates its design and indulges in mature subject matter, before predictably delivering on its initial promise. Though it’s notable that Cronenberg’s crime-thriller ends with a life being saved rather than a reassuring death, Eastern Promises rarely attempts to subvert the constraints of its genre. Instead, the film is seemingly content to function as a demonstration of Cronenberg’s proficiency and expertise, as he masters the guidelines that the genre imposes upon any director. Thus, while Eastern Promises is undoubtedly fascinating enough to be considered a fitting appendage to Cronenberg’s body of work, it still feels like a synthetic enhancement amassed through some sort of cinematic cosmetic surgery. Of course that doesn’t mean it’s not mesmerizing to behold.
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