Film

AN EXQUISITE MADNESS

With Spider, David Cronenberg weaves a chilly masterpiece of Oedipal dread

Brian D. Johnson March 3 2003
Film

AN EXQUISITE MADNESS

With Spider, David Cronenberg weaves a chilly masterpiece of Oedipal dread

Brian D. Johnson March 3 2003

AN EXQUISITE MADNESS

Film

With Spider, David Cronenberg weaves a chilly masterpiece of Oedipal dread

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

FOR MOST ofhis career, David Cronenberg had a distinctive image: staring through large, black-framed glasses, he looked like a scientist on the verge of a scary discovery. But a few years ago, the director underwent laser eye surgery and got rid of the glasses. He has a video of the operation, a souvenir that he compares to the classic shot of a razor blade dissecting an eyeball in Luis Buñuel’s Un chien andalou. “I quite enjoyed the procedure,” he recalled in a recent interview. “On the tape there are big close-ups of the cornea being sliced open. They cut through it partway and open it like a book.”

From his early days as a purveyor of biological horror, Cronenberg has developed a reputation for coolly examining things that make the rest of us squeamish. Since then he’s made movies about twin gynecologists (Dead Ringers), tumescent typewriters (Naked Lunch), car wreck sex (Crash), and umbilical game pods (eXistenZ). Next month, the Canadian director turns 60, and his pathological gaze now seems more keenly focused than ever. With Spider, his 15th feature, he’s created the most austere and restrained film ofhis career. It’s also one ofhis best, a chilly masterpiece of Freudian psychodrama Given the tide, and Cronenberg’s past fetish for skin-

crawling creatures, you might get the wrong idea. But there are no spiders in Spider. The title refers to the nickname of the central character, a schizophrenic played with febrile intensity by Ralph Fiennes. And the only creature in this film is the man’s skittering imagination.

Based on the novel by British writer Patrick McGrath, who also wrote the screenplay, Spider is set in London’s bleak East End. A shambling figure steps off a train and makes his way to a halfway residence for mental patients, a boarding house from hell run by a tyrant named Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave). There, in the streets where he grew up, Spider begins to unravel the trauma of his childhood. As a boy, he became convinced that his father, Bill Cleg (Gabriel Byrne), murdered his mother and replaced her with Yvonne, a prostitute from the local pub. A shape-shifting Miranda Richardson portrays both the mother and the whore, and even morphs into the sadistic landlady.

Wearing four shirts under his overcoat, and afraid natural gas is leaking from his skin, Spider appears to be in mortal fear ofhis own

body. He rarely talks, just mumbles under his breath, and fills a notebook that he hides under the carpet with scribbled pages of hieroglyphic script. His life is a riddle of frayed textures. Meaningful bits of string tumble out ofhis pockets. Like the amnesiac in Memento, Spider is obsessively searching for the thread ofhis own existence. It’s as if Fiennes has woken up as another kind of English patient, bandaged by the past and clutching a tattered book, but instead of a burnt body he has an infected mind.

The drama pivots on flashbacks to Spider as a delicate schoolboy, played with eerie dispassion by 10-year-old newcomer Bradley Hall. Then his schizophrenic web was just a cat’s cradle of Oedipal intrigue, spun from the stern English wool of sexual repression. The time-frame toggles between the ’80s and ’60s. But both period and location feel metaphysical, a world of converging angles and empty streets where Samuel Beckett or Franz Kafka would feel at home.

“Beckett was a touchstone,” Cronenberg acknowledges. “That purity, that distillation of experience. In my filmmaking, I’ve been stripping away things that don’t interest me, and focusing closer and closer on what excites me. Spider is simple, simple, simple. It becomes very compressed, very dense, like a small planet with great gravity, then opens up into quite a lot of complexity.” Essentially, the whole film takes place in Spider’s mind, but with Cronenberg the mind is always visceral. “It’s a very physical film,” he says. “Even though I don’t do effects, it’s as body-conscious as anything I’ve done. Spider is pared down to almost only his body. And he barely talks.”

That’s a radical change from the character in the book, who serves as an articulate literary narrator. And the first draft of McGrath’s script included voice-over passages of Spider writing his journal. But that didn’t jibe with the character’s dithering incoherence, a non-verbal approach that Fiennes developed on the set. “Ralph loves to mumble,” Cronenberg says, “and it just seemed to work. It was like singing.”

The director also stripped away aspects of the book that seemed tailor-made for him, including hallucinations of bugs and a bleeding potato. “We had the special effects guys make the potato,” says the director, “but I didn’t even bother shooting it, because I realized the movie had revealed itself as something different. Ralph is my big special effect

in this movie.” Or, as McGrath has pointed out, “It seems unnecessary to visualize the hell in which Spider lives when you’ve got the eyes of Ralph Fiennes, which offer you voids within voids.”

Cronenberg may be famous for portraying mutations of the flesh, but in Spider, as in Dead Ringers, he reveals himself as an actor’s director. Fiennes, who makes a speciality of smouldering torment, has never been better. Virtually without dialogue, he uses his eyes and hands to draw the viewer into a filigree web of intrigue. Richardson slips like quicksilver through a trio of female archetypes. As a projection of Spider’s deluded

vision, Byrne keeps his balance in a precarious role. And John Neville adds a droll grace note of paranoid erudition as Terrence, a resident of the boarding house who savours Spider’s obsessive behaviour as a work of coded genius.

Directing as if through Spider’s eyes, Cronenberg conveys the quiet landscape of English repression with exquisitely composed images of industrial dread—from the fires of a gasworks looming over a canal to the brick arches of a railway bridge overgrown by

weeds. He shot exteriors in England and interiors in Toronto—using dank, mouldy wallpaper imported from London. “I spent a lot of time in England as a young man,” he says. “I slept on floors of rooms with horrible heaters that you had to put threepenny bits in. I know the dampness, the mould, the lumbago—and the repressed rage that’s all intertwined with the class system.”

Yet in the end, he maintains, “Spider is a completely Canadian movie, a Canadian movie that delivers Englishness.” Or perhaps it simply comes from another country with no frontier, the uncharted reaches of David Cronenberg’s imagination.