Woody Allen and David Cronenberg: Double Noir By Grégory Valens

in 32nd Toronto International Film Festival

by Grégory Valens

“What are you doing here? This is a film noir, it should be seen at night,” teases David Cronenberg as he introduces the 9:30 am screening of Eastern Promises — yes, in Toronto, the directors are there even in the morning to meet with the audience!

“Sometimes, I am not happy with the result of the films I make. But this one is pretty good, I think,” confesses Woody Allen with a measure of false modesty while introducing the exciting gala screening of Cassandra’s Dream. (Yes, Woody Allen finally made it to Toronto!)

These two authors, well-known for their own peculiar universes, have both taken a step in an unusual direction by making classical film noirs. Both cinephiles, they saw films by Wilder, Preminger or Lang and knew the bar was set high. They also knew they were not clearly expected on such a classical path. And yet they played by the rules.

A companion film to A History of Violence in the way it deals with violence, Eastern Promises is one of the most purely narrative pieces ever directed by Cronenberg. It is also one of his least fantastic. There is a little twist in the script, of course, but it hardly comes as a surprise (as opposed to all of his previous features). Even if it makes the audience reassess the story up to that point, and evaluate the gestures of the character played by Viggo Mortensen differently, it doesn’t affect the general tone of the movie, its meaning, its atmosphere. Profoundly melancholic from the very beginning, Eastern Promises focuses on two Russian blood brothers who stand to inherit the control of the Russian mafia in London from its aging godfather. A midwife, who witnessed the death of a young Russian girl in childbirth, finds the girl’s diary, which leads her to the owner of a posh Russian restaurant — who is none other than the local godfather. Two intricate stories develop from there, that of Anna (Naomi Watts), her encounter with Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), her sense that he does not really belong to that milieu and that of Nikolai’s casual rivalry with Kirill (Vincent Cassel) in taking power within the family.

The disquieting production design, including indispensable wet paved streets, ideal places to dispose of bodies and suffocating interiors (even the classy restaurant seems to leave no place for breathing, while one of the most impressive sequences is set in a steam bath) form a perfect frame to a story which takes place mostly at night, hence reinforcing the creepy atmosphere of what could have been, otherwise, a sentimental journey of two middle-aged characters at a key moment in their tormented lives. A sense of fatality colors the relationship which emerges, against all odds and all logic, between Anna and Nikolai.

The combination of this impossible love and of the stylized, sometimes extreme violence of the characters creates a dichotomy which produces the film’s profound melancholy. Fatality and melancholy are also key elements in Woody Allen’s tormented Cassandra’s Dream, a classy step outside the director’s usual world. Even though Allen has regularly created pieces that have little to do with comedy — from the Bergman-inspired Interiors and the psychoanalytical drama Another Woman to the crime story Shadows and Fog and the sentimental tragedy Match Point — it still remains a surprise when he attempts figures that do not seem to belong to his universe. Furthermore, the precedent of Match Point (which contrasted a dramatic subject leading to an unpunished murder with the lighter counterpoint of its portrayal of British aristocracy, and ended with a cynical twist) leads the audience to expect the moment in Cassandra’s Dream in which they will be allowed to breathe, smile or rejoice. It won’t come. Cassandra’s Dream is a desperate, bitter, dry tragedy of two brothers who think they can get away with a crime, only to realize they can’t survive it. The exceptional performances of Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor, who seem to be born brothers (while one is Scottish and the other Irish), add a lot to the depth of their respective characters and the genuine sadness that arises between them.

Just like Cronenberg, but with a very different relationship to violence (the murder takes place out of the frame), Allen uses the codes of film noir to shape a film that leaves no space for hope. Unlike Manhattan Murder Mystery, in which the criminal aspects were balanced by the luminous couple formed by Diane Keaton and Woody Allen; unlike Match Point, which offered an ending that was willingly immoral and cynical, reminiscent of that of Mighty Aphrodite, Cassandra’s Dream is doomed from the start to be a melancholic, desperate drama on the human condition. It is, in this sense, very consistent with Woody Allen’s work.