In the first few minutes of Eastern Promises, the striking new thriller from David Cronenberg, a throat is sliced, a uterus hemorrhages, and a newborn baby, slimy and palpitating, emerges from the womb of its dead mother. None of which comes as much of a surprise from the maker of A History of Violence — to say nothing of The Brood. And then something really shocking happens. "My name is Tatiana," comes a voice from beyond the grave, the English words thick with a Russian accent, spoken in the unmistakable tones of ... a voice-over? In a Cronenberg film? It's nearly as startling as the exploding head in Scanners.
"Normally I hate voice-over because it's on the outside looking in," Cronenberg explains at the Regency Hotel in New York, where we spoke in advance of the Eastern Promises premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. "It means something's not working right, like you need a novel to explain the movie. But in this case, the novel is inside the movie."
The "novel" at the heart of Cronenberg's tale is a diary left behind by a young Russian girl who dies giving birth in a London hospital. Eastern Promises chronicles the attempt of midwife Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) to locate the next of kin by having the diary translated — and survive a treacherous entanglement with a clan of Russian thieves implicated in its pages.
Written by Steve Knight with the same care for the subtleties of London ethnic subcultures that he brought to Dirty Pretty Things, this scenario makes for a conventional, if colorful, thriller. Executed by Cronenberg with his inimitable focus and panache, the project found its ideal director. But did the director find his ideal project?
A straightforward thriller (in its twisted way), Eastern Promises follows the step taken by A History of Violence toward more accessible storytelling. What happened to such rumored projects as the film about performance-art terrorists and the avant-garde plastic-surgery thriller? Cronenberg's interests, he admits, are changing.
"I get offered things like that all the time," he says. "But I did it 30 years ago. I don't want to bore myself, because if I bore myself, I'm going to be boring." As to whether he considers the new work any kind of departure: "It's not a conscious decision. I don't, in a critical way or analytical way, think about the arc of my work. When I'm working on a script and a film, it's mostly intuition — but an educated intuition. Can I bring something to it that's worthwhile? Will it be entertaining to me? Those are my concerns."
So what did he bring to Eastern Promises? "You tell me."
Well, for starters, part of what makes Cronenberg such a consistently fascinating filmmaker is how consistent he is. You don't have to scratch too hard on the surface of Eastern Promises — a movie as fascinated by transformations of the flesh as The Fly, as concerned with the splintered psyche as Videodrome — for the familiar obsessions to spill out. Compared with the carefully neutral mindscapes of eXistenZ or Crash, the expat Russian underworld of Eastern Promises feels unusually specific — and less resonant than the hallucinated England of Spider or Naked Lunch's Tangier of the mind.
"To be universal," Cronenberg counters, "you have to be specific. You hope there will be abstractions that resonate from what you've done." Creating the world of Eastern Promises "wasn't that much different than getting into the Peking Opera for M Butterfly," he says. "Once again, we're dealing with a kind of strangely hermetically sealed subculture that has its own rules and logic and protocols. And for me, you have to understand, to get into Midwestern America for A History of Violence was no different than getting into this Russian subculture. It's just that to Americans, one is invisible and the other is exotic. So it's a matter of perspective."
"What David creates — it's his version of Russian expatriates," adds Promises leading man Viggo Mortensen. In the role of Nikolai, a mysterious, morally compromised mob factotum (and, obviously, something more), Cronenberg's latest muse refines the psychic and social conflicts he embodied in Violence — and he prepared accordingly. "I ended up going to Russia for a while. There was a lot of emphasis on language and a certain kind of Russian slang that was interesting to explore. I watched the way people choose to describe something, look at me or not look at me as they were talking, what they chose to reveal and how they revealed it. And then that attention to detail and integrity to the characterizations get balanced with his [Cronenberg's] own fantasy world."
"Reality is created," Cronenberg agrees. "Given our senses, the ways our eyes and nose and ears work, we have a certain perspective on the world we think is real. It isn't real for the dog."
Authentic as it feels, the world of Eastern Promises is still a fantasy.