CANNES, France — David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, the second American tale to be interpreted by a respected Canadian director at the Cannes Film Festival, met with some possibly unanticipated response: laughter.
It is unclear whether this often-violent tale of gentle Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), a small town Indiana family man whose life is ripped apart when gangsters think he is the violent brother of a mob leader, is meant to be as humorous as some audience members found it.
Ariel Schweitzer of the French film magazine, Cahiers du Cinema, considered A History of Violence to be nothing less than a modern take on the biblical story of Cain and Abel. “There was good tension between drama and comic relief — a good balance.”
Samuel Klebanov of Russian Culture TV wasn’t quite so generous. Although he enjoyed the film, he found it was “sometimes too serious and sentimental.” There were scenes, he argued, where the audience was “laughing at the film, not because of it.”
That didn’t stop Hans Langsteiner, who represents ORF Radio in Austria, from declaring — perhaps prematurely since there are six festival days remaining: “It’s the best film of the festival. I was overwhelmed.”
Such pronouncements go a long way to heightening the suspense here as — for the first time in 28 years — two Canadian directors, Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan, with his Where the Truth Lies, vie for the feature film Palme d’Or award. Egoyan’s film premiered Friday and is based on the novel by singer-songwriter Rupert Holmes.
A win by either would make Cannes film history. No Canadian-directed film has ever won the top prize.
Cronenberg is known by Cannes festival audiences for his avant-garde and arty style. His film Spider and the controversial Crash have already competed for the Palme and he presided over the prestigious Jury in 1999.
A History of Violence is a break from his past work. It is totally U.S. produced, based on the “graphic” American novel of the same name and packed with stars, including William Hurt and Ed Harris who play the extremely nasty gang members.
Maria Bello, who will be recognized by some for her role as a pediatrician on ER, plays Edie Stall, the small-town lawyer who for about two decades thought she had found the decent, kind, reliable man of her dreams. Her journey out of that blissful state is one of the best aspects of the movie.
Edie and Tom’s children, played by newcomers Ashton Holmes and Heidi Hayes, are also credible kids.
Holmes’ portrayal of a supposed schoolyard wimp being transformed by his critically changed relationship with his father is both tragic and unavoidably empowering.
During a press conference Monday, the often-humorous and witty Cronenberg acknowledged that surprising reactions — such as laughter — by the audience were part of the “magic and terror of this medium.”
Mortensen backed up the man he had obviously enjoyed working with, pointing out that Cronenberg was unlike directors and politicians who don’t like people to “think for themselves.”
Watching a movie where you are given that freedom, Mortensen said, was “more rewarding.”
When asked about the level of violence in his film, Cronenberg made it clear that his first responsibility was to the “film itself.” He also expressed some doubt that people could be inspired to kill by seeing killing on the screen. If that were the case, he argued, the world would be “depopulated.”
A History of Violence, he said, is a serious discussion of the nature of violence “on families, human life, and human bodies.”