Cronenberg and Egoyan Compete at Cannes

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 30, 2005

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 30, 2005

Cronenberg and Egoyan Compete at Cannes


1. The premiere of A History of Violence, Canadian David CRONENBERG's Hollywood-financed thriller. The audience has been on its feet, clapping and cheering, for five minutes. Cronenberg blows them kisses with arms outstretched. He hugs his stars, Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello and William Hurt, while his wife, Carolyn, working with a professional camera, captures it all on video. Finally, Cronenberg gives her a passionate embrace. Then, taking the camera, he holds it aloft in a triumphant salute and executes a slow pan around the room, like a rock star offering up the microphone to the crowd. Earlier he had turned tables on photographers by shooting back with his own Nikon. But the idea of filming his own standing ovation, he swears, was unpremeditated: "I was running out of things to do," he says. "At that point, I would have done backflips if could."

2. A palatial villa in the hills, where a lavish party hosted by Telefilm Canada is in full swing. Below the terrace is a pool with a bronze statue of a horse climbing out of the water and a pair of live swans gliding through the reflected flames of bonfires. Surveying the surreal spectacle, a couple of Canadian filmmakers mutter disapproval that Telefilm is financing a party with money that could go to films. The guest of honour is director Atom EGOYAN, who has just premiered Where the Truth Lies. He received a warm ovation but mixed reviews. And with U.S. distributors nervous that the sex scenes could incur an N-17 rating, there's concern his movie - the biggest of his career - won't get the wide release it needs. "If I want to keep making films at this level," says Egoyan, "this one has to do well."

EGOYAN AND CRONENBERG. People tend to conflate them, as if they're two sides of a split personality - Atom Cronenberg, that mild-mannered auteur who lives in Toronto and is known for making weird, chilly movies about taboo subjects. Atom Cronenberg's last picture, a labyrinthine riddle of identity and loss, perished at the box office. Now he's made a more commercial movie with American characters, and some steamy sex. Atom Cronenberg came to compete for the Palme d'Or in Cannes, a place he knows all too well. Over the years, he's had prize-winning films in competition and served on the jury. He knew Cannes was a crap shoot. But he couldn't resist. Cannes is where it all began.

But Cronenberg, 62, and Egoyan, 44, hail from different generations, and started out at opposite ends of the Cannes food chain. Cronenberg showed up 30 years ago to sell Shivers, a commercial horror movie, to the B-movie merchants. Nine years later, Egoyan arrived as a budding auteur, premiering Speaking Parts in the exclusive Directors' Fortnight. Since then, they've joined the Cannes canon. These two esteemed filmmakers have come to represent the almost pathological character of English Canadian cinema. And last week their careers converged with bizarre timing, as they became the first two Canadian directors to face off in official competition in 38 years.

In the wake of box-office flops (Cronenberg's Spider, Egoyan's Ararat), they've both gone after a broader audience by making the most costly films of their careers. "We both thought our movies were not right for Cannes," says Cronenberg. "We were hoping they were too commercial. I suppose the fear is that critics who loved you for being obscure and artsy will hate you for being commercial."

There are uncanny parallels between their pictures. A History of Violence and Where the Truth Lies both rework traditional genres, the thriller and the mystery. Set in the U.S., they focus on men with murky links to violence and the Mob. And they contain an implicit critique of the violence lurking beneath the sentimental gloss of the American Dream. Incidentally, they also both feature scenes of cunnilingus.

But the two directors have taken opposite approaches to mainstream material. As usual, Egoyan refuses to tell a straight story. Based on the novel by Rupert Homes, Where the Truth Lies is about a journalist (Alison Lohman) probing the mysterious breakup of a famous comedy duo, superbly played by Colin Firth and Kevin Bacon. (The novel is loosely based on the lives of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.) Shifting between the '50s and '70s, this opulent period piece gleams with style. But while it's about Hollywood, it's not of Hollywood. Shot in Los Angeles, Toronto and London, it's a $30-million Canada-U.K.-U.S. co-production with a serpentine plot as complex as its financing.

A History of Violence, on the other hand, is a $40-million production financed by New Line Cinema in the U.S., and shot entirely in Canada. Based on a graphic novel, this taut thriller is Cronenberg's most straightforward and accessible movie since The Fly (1986). And like The Fly, it was a job for hire. The story plays like a neo-western. Violence infects an idyllic little Indiana town when some men in black, mobsters from Philly, come gunning for Tom (Viggo Mortensen), who runs the local diner. And to the consternation of his wife and son, Tom reveals a ruthless talent for self-defence.

Tom could be Cronenberg himself: a nice guy living in a small town called Canada, minding the saloon, or salon, of art-house cinema. Men in black, the Hollywood suits, ask him to show his stuff, to direct some gunplay. And he delivers. With bursts of visceral horror, the film bears Cronenberg's signature. But as the hero unleashes his dark side in a rough scene of marital sex on the stairs, this is a departure from exploring the erotic side of car crashes.

Even in its darkest moments, there's an uncharacteristic tenderness to this story of a family coming unglued. For once Cronenberg is working with mainstream characters, and a tragicomic scenario that speaks to the heart. Even his villains have a Sopranos-like charm - the mafiosi played by a scarred Ed Harris and a priceless William Hurt. And some of the action sequences are so exhilarating they draw spontaneous applause at Cannes - eliciting a blood lust from the audience that congeals into regret moments later as the ugly consequences emerge.

Once again, Cronenberg has managed to shock Cannes - this time by making a crowd-pleaser. "It's perhaps the only mode of shock left to me," he jokes. "It could be very addictive - the wave of love and affection. But if people say Cronenberg did this movie because he desperately needs a hit, they don't know what they're talking about." The director admits, however, that he needed the money. After deferring his salary on Spider, and earning virtually nothing for two years, he was grateful for a Hollywood paycheque.

Robert Lantos, who executive-produced Cronenberg's Crash, tells me he declined to get involved in Spider because "I knew that the film, no matter how bravely executed, had no chance of reaching a substantive audience." Instead, he produced Egoyan's ill-fated Ararat. Now Lantos is backing Egoyan as producer of Where the Truth Lies, which cost twice as much as Ararat. "We all make mistakes," says Lantos, "and I make lots of mistakes. I don't know if Where the Truth Lies is going to be successful. I do know it's going to be marketed with resources and enthusiasm all over the world."

The next day, however, I talked to Egoyan, who was worried that U.S. distributors bidding for the film were reluctant to give it the push it needs. "We're dealing with nervous executives used to making a certain kind of offer for my movies. We're saying, 'Why don't you give it a campaign?' We've shown it in L.A. suburbs and realized that young men love this movie because it is kind of cool, it's a mystery, and it has sex. I'm not trying to be cynical with this. I'm the guy, after all, who told Miramax not to market Exotica as a sex thriller. I used to think artistic stamps of approval would be enough to find a market. But they're not."

Egoyan is up against some high stakes. His biggest hits so far have been Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter, which earned back their modest budgets with North American grosses in the neighbourhood of $5 million. Where the Truth Lies needs to earn over six times that. With less money than Cronenberg, Egoyan has attempted a more complex film, freighted with a more intricate agenda. Cronenberg examines American violence from the inside, with a switchblade drama that cuts both ways; Egoyan examines American celebrity from a Canadian remove.

"We observe the Dream Factory from a privileged position," says Egoyan, as we sit on a hotel patio in Cannes, talking over the shrieks of fans behind barricades who have just seen Willem Dafoe emerge from a car. "We understand it completely but we don't have that rhythm. Adrenalin does not flow through our blood the same way. We're an infinitely more reflective culture." And an Egoyan movie works like a mirror ball. As Lantos points out, "I don't think Atom has it in his DNA to tell a straightforward story."

Egoyan has added a slip knot to the novel's storyline - flashbacks to Lohman's character as a 12-year-old girl, falling in love with Bacon's character at a polio telethon. Lohman, a remarkably young-looking 25-year-old, actually plays the child too. And with that addition, Where the Truth Lies becomes yet another Egoyan movie - after Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter and Felicia's Journey - involving a girl possessed by an older man. I ask why the theme keeps resurfacing, and then wonder if his candour is a product of Cannes fatigue. "I have to deal with this," he sighs. "I have to take a break artistically. You don't want that to become a cliché. Maybe the only way to break that is to use someone else's screenplay. In that way I'm really jealous of what David has been able to do. He found a screenplay he could attach himself to, and still preserve what he does."

Yet Egoyan says he can't imagine surrendering control of a film to a studio - "especially now that any executive can take the DVD that you send them of your movie, load it into the computer, get some kid to rearrange some scenes, and send it back and say, 'Look at this, I was just fooling around, what do you think?' I would just slash my wrists."

Cronenberg, meanwhile, maintains that he made A History of Violence with no interference. But then he cut his teeth making commercial movies, and has directed two previous studio pictures, The Fly and The Dead Zone. If A History of Violence is a hit, that will just give him freedom to do more of what made him notorious. In Cannes, Lantos spoke about producing Cronenberg's next movie. It's a sci-fi picture called Painkillers, set in an anaesthetized future in which pain is a luxury. On the terrace overlooking the swans and bonfires, Lantos tells me it involves scenes of characters using their internal organs to have sex.

"What, surgical sex?" I ask.

"Yeah, something like that."

Sounds perfect for Cannes.

See also FILM.

Maclean's May 30, 2005