SOMMER ’09 (p1) : eXistenZ [10/10]; The Brood [8/10]; My Night at Maud’s [4+/10]

#3   eXistenZ : 10/10
Great news: David Cronenberg is writing again. Reportedly unsatisfied with early drafts of his upcoming adaptation of Robert Ludlum's The Matarese Circle (post-Bourne, Ludlum is very much in favour with Hollywood studios), Cronenberg is currently working on what's been described as a "page one" rewrite (i.e. start-to-finish.)
   Whether or not this is the screenplay that ends up being used – and whether or not Cronenberg does actually end up directing Tom Cruise and Denzel Washington in the movie, the mere fact that Cronenberg has been active with a pen again should be cause for celebration.
   It's startling to realise that Cronenberg's last screenplay credit was eXistenZ more than a decade ago – his seventh original feature-length work for the screen after Shivers, Rabid, The Brood {see below}, Fast Company, Scanners and Videodrome (Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch and Crash were based on books, The Fly on a short-story.)
   Then again, after eXistenZ, Cronenberg would have been forgiven for reckoning he'd gone as far as he could go. Hard to think of many films that so deftly, wittily and intelligently juggle so many ideas – about society, cinema, free will, technology religion – let alone ones that do so in such brisk, excitingly watchable fashion. 
   The "plot" of eXistenZ appears to concern a near-future world where virtual-reality gaming – conducted via quasi-organic "pods" that plug directly into the base of the spinal column – is both a megabucks business and a valid artistic endeavour (similarities to cinema at the end of the 20th century are clearly intentional.)
   Queen of the gaming world is designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who we see testing out her latest masterpiece – eXistenZ – with a willing band of guinea-pigs. But just as they're plugged into their pods, an assassination attempt is made on Geller's life – forcing her to flee with a "PR nerd" from the company which sponsors her research, one Ted Pikul (a pre-fame Jude Law.) Needless to say, all is very much not what it seems. 
   At once a giddy comedy, a truly mind-bending, rug-pulling brain-teaser and a post-modern, self-deconstructing romance/thriller/sci-fi/horror-movie that's also an elaborate homage to the fictions of Philip K Dick, eXistenZ was somewhat overlooked on its original release back in 1999 – when it was crowded out by somewhat noisier what-is-the-nature-of-reality/who-are-we-really enterprises such as The Matrix (in the multiplexes) and Being John Malkovich (in the arthouses). The closest comparison is probably with David Fincher's The Game from 1997, a similarly underrated, slyly self-deconstructing journey through multiple levels of reality, artifice and cinematic storytelling.
   It's a recipe for what could have been anything-goes smart-aleckery, but Cronenberg's steely control of the narrative – and also his limpid mise-en-scene on what looks to have been a relatively limited budget – instead ensure that eXistenZ is that rare film to dazzle the senses as well as provoke the intellect.
   It also, despite running the risk of becoming instantly dated thanks to its very pre-millennial "cyberpunk" undertones, looks more impressive with the passing of the years*. Indeed, alongside A History of Violence, this now appears to be one of the true pinnacles of what we must now surely acclaim as one of the great film-making careers.
* click here for my 2003 review (only 8/10!) of the film.

   #2   THE BROOD : 8/10
   Toronto, the late seventies. Winter. Frank Carveth (Art Hindle) has divorced his wife Nola (Samantha Eggar). She is engaged in experimental therapy sessions at the secluded Somafree Institute under the guidance of Dr Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed). Raglan, author of trendy bestseller The Shape of Rage, is developing a new technique which he calls Psychoplasmics – whereby patients channel psychological problems into physical manifestations upon and within their own bodies. Frank becomes concerned that Nola is harming their 5-year-old daughter Candy (Cindy Hinds) during the latter's weekend visits to the institute. He quickly discovers that the truth is much worse.
   A key transitional film for writer-director Cronenberg - more disciplined and effective in its combination of the cerebral and the visceral than his previous horrors – The Brood is a very thinly-veiled assault on the wiggier forms of psychotherapy and self-realisation that became globally popular in the mid-to-late seventies, as much as it is a grand guignol fable examining the painful dynamics of fractured families. Structured around a series of role-play sessions – mostly, but not exclusively, involving Reed and Eggar – it's a talky, analytical kind of chiller, but one that delivers both jolts and creeps when required. 
   There's an inherent absurdity in the premise which Cronenberg never quite fully manages to conceal – not to mention a consistent streak of low-key but unexpectedly amusing black humour that keeps surfacing in the dialogue, and also in the extremity of the grotesque situations in which straight-arrow nice-guy Frank (asked how he is at one typically fraught juncture, his jaded response is "just mediocre") keeps finding himself.
   Hindle's dogged ordinary-bloke persistence is a vital element in picture crammed full of what might be called "juicier" turns: English thesps Eggar and Reed stay just the right side of hammy excess, while Cronenberg regular Robert Silverman's extended cameo as an aggrieved (and ickily deformed) ex-Psychoplasmics patient is played pretty much for (queasy) laughs. Hindle, Eggar and Reed, for all their differing approaches, do deliver wholly committed perfomances - supported by little Hinds, who, while looking rather older than Candy's supposed five years, contributes one of the most convincing, troubling depictions of a traumatised child you'll see in a movie.
   This all helps immeasurably in making us to concentrate, despite the numerous vivid distractions along the way, on the characters' inner conflicts and torments. Their extravagant emotions and passions are all the more vivid given the chilly sterility of their bland environs - whether these be the cosily stultifying suburbs of their stolidly middle-class city, the bleak concrete playground of a modern school, or the dreaded institute, nesting bulkily among its Canadian infinity of largely-leafless trees.

#1   MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S (Ma nuit chez maud) : 4+/10
   I feel notably ill-equipped to write anything on the film generally referred to by its French title Ma nuit chez Maud, so utterly unengaging did I find the experience of watching it.
   And yet, so many people – so many sensible, well-informed, reliable judges - regard it as a kind of masterpiece. Nominated for the Foreign-Language Oscar one year and the Best Screenplay Oscar the next, it's the very talky story of a 34-year-old engineer (Jean-Louis Trintignant as 'Jean-Louis') living in the wintry city of Clermont-Ferrand, slap-bang in the centre of France.
   This town was the birthplace of 17th-century philosopher/mathematician Blaise Pascal, whose ideas are frequently discussed by the characters – specifically his views on religious matters. Jean-Louis is a Catholic, a thinker, guilt-troubled. He's increasingly obsessed with a young woman he often sees at mass, Francoise (Marie-Christine Barrault.) But before making his move on Francoise, he semi-accidentally spends the night – talking, then sleeping – with Maud (Francoise Fabian), the sympathetic, flirtatious mistress of his long-lost pal Vidal (Antoine Vitez), whom he'd bumped into in a cafe after a 14-year gap.
   The black-and-white photography is by the great Catalan DP Nestor Almendros (Days of Heaven, Cockfighter, L'histoire d'Adele H), and for me the most effective and moving scenes are the wordless ones, as via a series of protracted takes we share Jean-Louis' perspective as he drives his car around Clermont-Ferrand's busy streets, in search of a glimpse of the elusive Francoise.
   But the more the characters chatter on and on, the more I felt myself drifting away both from them and from Rohmer's narrative. So that, by the end – after a brief five-years-later coda on a sunny beach, this environment in jarring contrast to what's gone before – I found myself heading for the exit bemused, baffled, decidedly none the wiser, and feeling very much like this was somehow all my fault for being so clod-headedly dense. 

Neil Young
July 2009

THE BROOD : [8/10] : full title David Cronenberg's The Brood : Canada 1979 : David CRONENBERG : 92m (BBFC) : seen via 35mm print at The Star and Shadow cinema, Newcastle, 15th July (paid  £4)

eXistenZ : [10/10] : Canada/UK 1999 : David CRONENBERG : 97m (BBFC) : seen via 35mm print at The Star and Shadow cinema, Newcastle, 19th July (paid  £4)

MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S : [4+/10] : Ma nuit chez maud; full title Six contes moraux III: Ma nuit chez Maud : France 1969 : Eric ROHMER : 110m (BBFC) : seen via 35mm print at The Star and Shadow cinema, Newcastle, 9th July (paid  £4)