In a film culture up to its lowbrow in clich餠tales of homicidal madness, Spider, by David Cronenberg (opening Friday, March 14 at the Metro), and Gaspar No駳 Irr鶥rsible (opening Friday, March 14 at the Varsity) are each utterly distinctive. Cronenberg's is veddy Britishastringent as tea, a bit repressed, staid and dank and clammy. No駳 erupts with noisy Gallic passion. Both are essentially philosophical exercises, and that's what distinguishes and limits them.
Cronenberg's wacko hero, Dennis "Spider" Cleg (Ralph Fiennes), was invented by novelist Patrick McGrath, whose dad ran England's biggest madhouse, Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. His boyhood playmates included a patient who boiled his mum's eyeballs. What excited the director was the novel's concept of memory as an intrinsically unreliable record. As UW expert Elizabeth Loftus frequently testifies, there's no such thing as "recovered" memorymemory is, biologically speaking, a story we retell ourselves, variations on a long-lost theme, and daily rewoven, like cobwebs.
Spider is about Spider's attempt to get his own life story straight after he leaves the asylum for a halfway house in London's dire East End in the 1950s. Fiennes can't play normal to save his life (see: Maid in Manhattan), but boy, can he play crazy! He stumbles off the train like a human question mark, his hair standing straight up, as if terrified of his brain (Cronenberg's main model for the character was Samuel Beckett). It's a good thing Fiennes is so eloquent with body language, because he spends the film muttering almost incoherently, jotting gibberish in notebooks he furtively hides, and failing to put jigsaw puzzles together.
We watch as Spider revisits scenes from his youth, like a skulking, cuckoo Scrooge who serves as his own ghostly guide. His mother (warmly played by Miranda Richardson) tells young Spider (Bradley Hall, a creepy kid resembling an alien) his favorite story, about how a spider mama dies after laying her eggs ("Her work is done"). She weeps while Dad (Gabriel Byrne) gets drunk and humps tramps under the bridge coming home from the pub. Soon Mum is dead, and pub tart Yvonne (played with vulgar virtuosity by Richardson) usurps the kitchen, dishing out meals of slimy eels. What's a boy to do? What's a mother for but to be done in?
Though Spider gets compared with A Beautiful Mind, Spider's delusions don't pack the punch of surpriseCronenberg doesn't fool us the way that film did. When Dad and Mum and the halfway-house matron (Lynn Redgrave) shift from gentle to scary, you soon get it that Spider's view is unreliable. The film is a pensive, beautiful tour of the unsightly insides of Spider's mind, but there's too much plodding method in his madness.
All hail Cronenberg for keeping the art-film faith despite Hollywood's attempts to tempt him with Flashdance and Beverly Hills Cop (which he declined to direct). But a deplorable meditative pallor has been dimming his radiance. He's like Beckett, refining his heroes until they're wraiths. Spider was more interestingmore cinematicin the novel, where he had more words and lurid fantasies. Here he's a brilliant, cold, inarticulate concept. Cronenberg's own mom was a pianist who accompanied Nureyev, his dad a two-fisted writer for True Detective. But I would've liked Spider more if it had more rampageous Nureyev-esque music and more pulp like his daddy used to pound out.
Two of the maybe eight women at the Seattle preview of Irr鶥rsible walked out, and I had half a mind to join them. (At last year's Cannes Film Festival, more than 200 fled.) Star Monica Bellucci's anal rape and near murder is the most unpleasant nine or so minutes I've seen on-screen since Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Yet, as with Spider, I think the real reason the film fails is that it's just a head trip.
This one gets compared with Memento, because its 12 scenes are shown in reverse order. Starting with sinister murk and a rib-snappingly loud soundtrack, the story leads back to sunlit scenes of idyllic young love. (As the French say, "All things start out well.") The credit sequence is great, literally spiraling out of control. Then the camera lurches in on two guys hauled off by cops. Next scene: the crime. In a savage Paris sex club called Club Rectum, Pierre (Albert Dupontel) realistically caves in a man's face by hitting him 22 times with a fire extinguisher. The next scene reveals the motive: to avenge the assault on his ex-girlfriend, Alex (Bellucci, Tears of the Sun), who recently started dating his best friend, Marcus (Vincent Cassel). It turns out the guy they hunted down and whom Pierre killed isn't the rapist.
The story is just a straightforward revenge flick in reverse: Call it Walking Tall Backward (and Killing the Wrong Guy). The story is logical, propulsive, originally and stylishly told, but it fails to do the trick that made shifty-narrative hits like Memento and Betrayal great: force you to re-evaluate everything you've seen before in light of the new evidence in each scene. It's too simple.
Irr鶥rsible shows restraint in its explicitnessit doesn't glamorize rape and violence the way conventional, less disturbing movies routinely do. But neither does it earn its philosophical pretensions. "This book says the future is already written, and the proof is premonitory dreams," says Alex, who dreams about a tunneland gets raped in a tunnel! But her fate is arbitrary, not rooted in character or choice. She just walked into the wrong tunnel at the wrong time in a clingy skirt. The movie makes a big deal of its motto: "Time destroys all things." The French have a word for a portentous statement like this: banal.