Bradley Hall and Ralph Fiennes in Spider (dir. David Cronenberg, 2002).

Miranda Richardson.

Ralph Fiennes.

Spider alienated many Cronenberg fans, who felt their beloved creepmaster was straying too far into "respectable" cinematic territory. The same critique was made, with somewhat more justice, of M. Butterfly (1993), but Spider is completely true to vintage Cronenbergian form. It doesn't have the usual level of blood or mangled flesh (though there are a couple of brief gory scenes), but all the trademark obsessions are there: the dread of sexuality, the encasement of the body, and most of all the dark fantasy of narrative and text assuming the power to corrupt one's sense of reality at a deep pychological, perhaps even cellular level.

I can't help but think that Cronenberg derived some cruel ironic pleasure from granting Ralph Fiennes his longtime wish of playing the role of the schizophrenic Dennis "Spider" Clegg--and then having author Patrick McGrath rework the script to remove nearly all of Spider's lines (originally planned as voiceover). Fiennes says maybe twelve intelligible words in the whole picture, and it lends considerably to the pervading sense of anxiety and isolation, as do all the shots where Spider is the only person in the frame.

Much of the story is presented as flashback, with Fiennes sharing filmic space with his younger self--and sometimes revisiting scenes he could not physically have witnessed in the first place. This is another of Cronenberg's familiar unnerving maneuvers: to put both us and his characters through vertiginous sequences of events that complicate and contradict each other. Miranda Richardson adds to the disorientation by playing multiple roles (I didn't realize this till the movie was almost over, but I'm hopeless with facial recognition). The final "twist" is predictable, but this doesn't lessen the emotional impact that much.

My favorite moment is the opening scene, where we watch what seems like half of Britain (actually the entire crew of the film) getting off a train and streaming past us, and we know that eventually we will be introduced to Spider as part of the stream--and the moment keeps getting deferred, until when we do finally see him, we are so relieved that our defenses are down, and we register his agonized presence like a sudden shock to the system. He crawls slowly off the train and onto the platform as though unsure of his footing, and our next impulse is one of protectiveness and sympathy. For the rest of the film, we feel bound to him, even responsible for him.

Tangential note: I say "we" because, even though I don't believe in a universally uniform audience response, this is how the experience of watching a movie feels to me: it's not directed at me, individually, but at an ideal set of spectators I happen to be among. I always sense that larger theoretical set, like a company into which I am temporarily inserted, when I'm watching a film.

1 comment:

William Keckler said...

Oh, I clicked on this because I thought you wuz reviewing Spider Baby. I just saw that movie for the first time recently and thought it was awesome. I wonder if Lon Chaney was on dialysis between scenes. It was a very sexy movie. I think the French word for that type of sexy is ecervele.