Welcome to Framed, a column at Cinematical that celebrates the artistry of cinema -- one frame at a time.
For most of his career, Canadian director David Cronenberg has been known for his intelligent and disturbing genre films. However, Cronenberg isn't just a horror filmmaker -- he's a genuine auteur with a keen visual eye and a recurring set of thematic concerns that turn up in the majority of his work. Unfortunately, it has taken the director crossing over into more mainstream fare to get people to notice how truly talented he is. Yet, even Cronenberg's more commercial cinema marries beautiful imagery and extreme violence in an uncomfortably alluring fashion. One need look no further than his work with actor Viggo Mortensen for proof of that.
Today we'll be looking at a frame from one the duo's collaborations, 2007's Russian mob drama Eastern Promises.
Mortensen plays Nikolai, the chauffeur/cleaner for a Russian mafia boss in London. He meets Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife, after she starts snooping around in his boss' business when she finds a diary on a young Russian girl who dies in childbirth. Nikolai tries to keep her out of harm's way while rising through the ranks of the Russian crime syndicate and finding his own life in peril. It's hard to discuss the film's narrative with any more detail than that because to reveal too much ruins what is a masterful film. Trust me when I say that if you haven't seen Eastern Promises, you should.
You should also stop reading here because there is a big spoiler ahead. Hopefully you'll see the movie -- which is definitely a Blu-ray worthy purchase -- and then come back to read the analysis.
Much has been written about the film's level of authenticity in chronicling how Russian gangsters conduct themselves. Mortensen took the role very seriously, going so far as to speak to actual mobsters about their tattoos, what they meant, where they were placed, and their moral codes in general. A New York Daily News story states that the tattoos were so realistic that Mortensen frightened diners at a Russian restaurant when he entered after a day of shooting. This attention to detail, along with the fine performances and beautiful cinematography, are some of the main reasons why Eastern Promises turned up on many Best of 2007 lists.
As Siddharth Pillai points out in his article about the film, there's a sort of reverse noir aspect running throughout Eastern Promises -- Naomi Watts plays the hero thrust into a complex mystery that may be too much for her to resolve while Mortensen is the femme fatale -- dark, mysterious, and dangerous. Cronenberg, always one looking to subvert expectations, takes the gender reversals even further by adding in a great deal of homo-erotic subtext, particularly through Vincent Cassel's character Kirill.
Pillai also mentions how flesh and blood are ever-present motifs throughout the film. From the opening scene wherein a murder is committed through to Eastern Promises' conclusion, life and death co-exist casually within the characters' universe -- yet another way Cronenberg makes the viewer feel ill at ease. Flesh and blood, both literally and figuratively, play a prominent role in Eastern Promises. The tattoos on the flesh of Mortensen tell his history -- and in this image, show his prospective employers his criminal resume. The flesh becomes his calling card -- his entire history etched in a combination of ink and blood.
That blood is no less important. These Russian gangsters are bound by who they are and where they have come from. Theirs is a fraternity, a family that one can only enter if they have the proper genetic make-up. It becomes ironic, as it does in all mob films, that these organizations who place such an onus on being familial and loyal will then sell out their own "blood" for greedy and selfish reasons.
The frame I've chosen to talk about this week is one of the more iconic images from Eastern Promises. It involves Viggo Mortensen standing in front of the mafia hierarchy as they consider him for promotion within their organization. The actor is nearly naked as the higher ups read the story of his criminal life from the body art he sports on his exposed skin. It's a mesmerizing scene -- the air of ritual masking what in reality isn't all that different from a farmer inspecting livestock at auction.
Cronenberg reteamed with cinematographer Peter Suschitzky for Eastern Promises and the end result is a visually stunning film that captures the somber mood of the story perfectly. Suschitzky worked on Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, Crash, A History of Violence, Spider, eXistenZ, and M. Butterfly with the director previously. He won a Genie Award for the first three films mentioned as well as his work on this movie.
Suschitzky and Cronenberg show us many things about the characters in this particular shot. The background is lavish, but also looks cheap and gaudy in its ostentatiousness. It's old looking and hints at a time of opulence that has passed -- yet the people in the environment don't realize it. The use of red and green is interesting as well. The contrasting colors further highlight the different generations of people in the frame -- yet the colors are tonally so close that the marriage of old world meets new clashes -- something we continually witness the crime family struggle with.
The scene's staging is also noteworthy. Cronenberg and Suschitzky eventually wind up with a low-angle side view of Mortensen and the gangsters. The mafia men look like judge and jury sitting there in their expensive suits. Nikolai, on the other hand, looks like a petty criminal about to be sentenced for his crimes. He's forced to stand while the men judging him sit, once again giving the impression they're appraising him as though he were somehow less than human. There's a tension inherent in the positioning -- one that's very deliberate. Conflict hangs in the air -- as though Nikolai must face off against these men. In the context of the film as a whole, this makes sense. There's also a sense of ritual and importance -- this is a big moment in any mafia footsoldier's life -- not unlike being baptized or taking communion.
We also see a lot of dichotomy in terms of the scene's lighting. There are some well defined chiaroscuro elements happening in this frame, pronounced switches from brightly lit spots to one shrouded in shadows. On a subconscious level, it seems to mirror the inner lives of the characters in the scenes. They're criminals, they have secrets, they're dark people -- yet they all play at being contributing members of society as well. It is particularly true for Nikolai -- who's an FSB agent posing as a gangster. Nikolai is a good guy -- but to catch these bad men, he's had to become one himself, doing things well outside the law. There's a light and darkness inside the character -- and when the revelation of Nikolai's true nature comes out later in the film, it makes this scene feel that much more poignant and subtle.
These dichotomies, the merging of the subtle and the obvious, are what make Eastern Promises such a compelling experience. Cronenberg and Suschitzky have crafted a multilayered film that is not only evocative in its narrative and performances, but one that also impresses with its visual design.