David Cronenberg, Viggo Mortensen, and the Unseen Transformation

Movies Features David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg, Viggo Mortensen, and the Unseen Transformation

In April, it was announced that director David Cronenberg and actor Viggo Mortensen would be reuniting for Cronenberg’s next film, Crimes of the Future. While, in fact, not a remake of Cronenberg’s film of the same name from 1970, the announcement of Crimes of the Future brought another surprise as well: The film will mark the official return to Cronenberg’s body horror roots after two decades working in drama.

After making three largely dramatic films during the ‘90s—Crash, M. Butterfly and Naked Lunch—Cronenberg (whose notable work in the body horror subgenre includes The Fly, Videodrome, Scanners and The Brood) made the seemingly permanent jump from horror to drama at the start of the new millennium. With his last true body horror flick being 1999’s eXistenZ, Cronenberg began his enduring partnership with Mortensen in 2005’s A History of Violence, succeeded by Eastern Promises in 2007 and A Dangerous Method four years later. Their latest collaboration’s synopsis details a future where humans have “evolved beyond their natural state” and are able to alter their biological makeup. They adopt something called “Accelerated Evolution Syndrome,” which has been embraced by people like performance artist Saul Tenser (Mortensen) to grow new organs in his body—and he’s turned the removal of them into theater. It is interesting, then, in the specific case of working with Mortensen, that Cronenberg’s return to body horror proper should be so explicitly about internal bodily changes, when internal transformations are what has defined the actor and director’s previous three team-ups.

Their relationship began when Cronenberg was tasked with wooing the notoriously picky actor as the lead for his upcoming film, A History of Violence. While not knowing where they stood after their first encounter, Mortensen rang up Cronenberg five days in a row, and it became clear to Cronenberg that the actor was on board. They developed a kind of game during the European press tour for the film, where the two agreed to only nod in agreement no matter what the other one said during interviews. At one press conference in particular, this idea was pushed further when Viggo responded to a question about what it’s like to work with Cronenberg. He explained that “It’s actually quite horrible. He likes to humiliate and demean and is very hostile. At times we get to drink water, and sometimes we only get to drink our own urine.” From such a loose, playful antic—in and of itself a gag that works out of disgust for the body—it is, perhaps, no surprise that Viggo continues to allow Cronenberg to use his body as a playground for contemporary explorations of the horror of the human form.

On the surface, it might’ve seemed as if Cronenberg had indeed abandoned the horror genre entirely after 1999. eXistenZ is a bleak, darkly satirical Y2K anxiety nightmare, in which the body becomes one with the digital, predicting the eventual onslaught of virtual reality entertainment. It is, admittedly, one of Cronenberg’s weaker horror films and works like a last gasp synthesis of all the hallmarks he’d become known for while operating within the genre in the decades prior. But Cronenberg never really left body horror. Cronenberg’s foray into drama in the 2000s, particularly his collaborations with Viggo, see him grappling with bodies in a different way: Not maturing out of or away from horror, but integrating the horror of existing in a body into a different genre.

A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method are each as much about doppelgängers and/or body-sharing as Cronenberg’s dual-Jeremy Irons psychological horror Dead Ringers; as much about metamorphosis as The Fly. Cronenberg’s work with Mortensen is no longer about what happens to the body, but what the body can do on its own—what it is already capable of. How it can be that more than one person can exist in one body. Both A History of Violence and Eastern Promises see Mortensen portraying characters wrestling with similar internal conflict: Metamorphosing into a different yet identical person without it being perceived by the outside world, embodying two psyches struggling to coexist within one form. In History, he portrays mild-mannered family man Tom Stall, whose peaceful existence in humble, small-town America is upended after he gains national notoriety for stopping a burglary. This draws the unwanted attention of mobster Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), who is privy to Stall’s previous life as Philadelphia hitman Joey Cusack. In Eastern Promises, Viggo is driver and “cleaner” Nikolai Luzhin for the London-based Russian mob. He rises within the Vory V Zakone ranks while acting as an undercover FSB informant for the British government, tenuously balancing his moralistic inclinations with the cutthroat mercilessness necessary to infiltrate the mafia.

Even A Dangerous Method, a fairly straightforward biographical drama about the growing tensions between famed psychologists Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Mortensen), and which does not see this sort of dual psyche in Viggo’s character, instead sees it played out in Keira Knightley’s portrayal of Sabina Spielrein—Jung’s former patient, who later becomes a physician and one of the first female psychoanalysts. Spielrein arrives to Jung in a state of disturbed mania, but, through Jung’s guidance and Freud’s teachings, Jung is able to work with the young woman to find the psychosexual root cause of her mental illness and manage it. Still, the once warm and fatherly Freud transforms into Jung’s professional adversary, as the two further disagree on psychoanalysis following Jung’s sticky sexual affair with Spielrein. Metamorphoses have been a predominant theme in much of Cronenberg’s work: The genetic mutation of Seth Brundle in The Fly; the external womb, created from internalized rage, of Nola Carveth in The Brood; the bloodthirsty orifice, developed after surgery due to a motorcycle accident, of Rose in Rabid. Cronenberg has consistently been preoccupied with changes in the body that bring us to some heightened state, often at the deadly intersection between science, technology and humanity.

In his Viggo films, Cronenberg’s unseen metamorphoses are grounded in reality—but often no less deadly. There are, of course, more overt preoccupations with the body in History, Promises and Method. The capability of the body to receive and commit violence (even in its most vulnerable state, like in the infamous “sauna fight” from Eastern Promises); the story of a man’s life as told by the tattoos which adorn his flesh; the abuse experienced by prostitutes forcibly drugged and raped at the hands of the Russian mafia, evident in their weary forms and injection-scarred arms. A shot of a glistening, wet newborn, newly released from the womb of her dead mother who did not survive childbirth. Spielrein’s masochistic sexual desires manifested as a need to be physically hit and bound in order to achieve orgasm. These bodies are grounded in reality, their stories told through the language of a genre typically removed from blood and guts to the point where the subtle fixation on physicality lends itself to the uncanny. Thus, what these bodies endure can be far more horrific than any hallucinatory, vaginal orifice generated on one’s abdomen like in Videodrome.

In the more evident displays of bodily transformation in Cronenberg’s past work, the mutation or decay of the body coincides with the decay of the psyche. But his Viggo triad is marked by decay, or hypothetical decay, of the psyche that goes physically unseen. How much humanity will Nikolai lose the more ingrained he becomes in the Russian mafia? How much of Tom Stall’s humanity is truly present if he was previously a brutal murderer? Is it detrimental to inhibit our natural, wild sexual impulses for the sake of creating controlled beauty and life? All three films tackle this idea of suppressing one self for the sake of another.

Of course, this suppression does not lend itself to total metamorphosis, but rather a multiplicity of self that begets hidden monsters among us. In Cronenberg’s initial efforts to get Viggo on board for History, they discussed the then-present state of George W. Bush’s America, “the image of a man standing alone with a gun—that if he is attacked, anything he does afterward is justified; about how much a part of America’s values that is.” The ordinary man who can transform into a ruthless killer when provoked, who has been encouraged to arm himself with weapons in defense of his second amendment rights. We other ourselves from such a figure, but the horror is that Tom Stall could be any of us. He was created in the beating heart of Americana. The distance between good and evil, between animal and human, is never as far as we might think. As illustrated by Method, this conflict of carnal urges exists in us all. To some degree, we are all engaged in a physical and psychological balancing act between what is “good” or “bad” in being human—which is nonetheless a part of our humanity. In the end, they are one and the same.

Perhaps part of what makes Mortensen and Cronenberg so perfect for each other is that Viggo is not afraid of his own body. He’s an actor who has become infamous for the absurd things he’ll do to himself to finish a scene (like supergluing a broken tooth back on). When promo posters for A History of Violence airbrushed Viggo’s wrinkles and the scar which embellished his upper lip, he made sure they were changed back to reflect reality. “He’s not afraid of what he is,” Cronenberg said. With Viggo’s embrace of aging and the distance since their last collaboration, Cronenberg’s use of Viggo’s body this time around will now be able to suffuse its physicality with true otherworldly horror as opposed to the naturalistic horror of real life. Long live the new flesh, indeed.

Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.

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