American films, as well as those exploring U.S. culture from the outside looking in, have always been popular in Cannes. But replacing such homegrown progenitors as Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino this year are the likes of Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg and Danish auteur Lars Von Trier.
Having won the Grand Jury Prize in 1996 for Crash and served as Jury President in 1999, Cronenberg is back this year in competition with A History of Violence, a film that so far has lived up to its early positive buzz. Even though all it says in the press notes is that actors Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello play a couple living together in a small Midwestern town where they are raising a family, a function of Cronenberg’s concerns that telling too much of the plot might ruin the suspense for audiences.
“I remember with The Crying Game, Neil Jordan begged the press not to give away the secret and they honored that,” Cronenberg recalled. “You can certainly say that Viggo’s character Tom Stall seems to be mistaken for a gangster by a couple of gangsters from Philadelphia and that they won’t go away. They won’t leave him alone, so he has to begin to take matters into his own hand to dissuade them.”
Somewhat typically for a Cronenberg film, there are moments of intense and graphic violence dotted throughout A History of Violence. “Sex and violence have always done very well for me,” he joked. “It’s like bacon and eggs. And if you look at the history of cinematic violence, you’ll see that there’s a long one.”
“There’s always a sexual component in violence and there is a violent component in sexuality of any kind,” he continued. “To me, that’s a natural thing to explore.”
Even so, Cronenberg insists he tried to be responsible in how he handled the violence, choosing not to glamorize it in any way. “It was a serious discussion about the nature of violence and the impact that it has on society and families and human life and on human bodies as well,” he explained.
Interspersed between the sex and violence of A History of Violence, which also stars Ed Harris and William Hurt, are moments of true levity. “I think you can be funny and serious at the same time,” Cronenberg maintained. “I think you can have a serious comedy and yes, this movie is quite funny, there’s no question about it. There is a real tension in some scenes between the serious aspects of it, the very serious emotional aspects of it, and the funny aspects.”
Although A History of Violence may well be Cronenberg’s most mainstream film in years, the 62-year-old Toronto native still aimed to make the audience do a little work for its entertainment. It is that characteristic, says Mortensen, that drew him to the project.
“Most filmmakers, the last thing they want you to do is think for yourself,” said the actor, whose previous stop at Cannes was in 2001 for The Lord of the Rings. “It is easier when a politician or filmmaker tells you what to think. But it’s more rewarding when you are allowed to think for yourself.”
While Cronenberg shot his latest film Canada, the idea was to create the feeling of a perfect slice of Midwestern Americana. “The specifics of this were American, but the commentary on violence is quite universal,” he said. “Every country has a history of violence. Every country was founded on violence. Every nation exercises its self-determined right to commit violence against other countries and even its own citizens there is not one country that can claim that it doesn’t.”