David Cronenberg’s Spider is a strong and disturbing film. In terms of its stark emotional power, it is one of the director’s best; even though, ultimately, it is not what I have really hoped for from Cronenberg….
Spider is relentless, and intensely claustrophobic. The disturbed protagonist, nicknamed Spider, and brilliantly embodied (more than just played) by Ralph Fiennes, could be described as a man in the grip of a delusion, only the delusion is so visceral–he suffers it in his mind and in his flesh–that such a (merely mental) description seems inadequate. The embodiment and physical suffering of delirium is what marks this as a Cronenberg film.
Everything in the film contributes to the unsparing presentation of a mind/body affect from which there is no escape: the ugly and nearly monochromatic color scheme, the bleak poverty and industrial waste of the surroundings, the precision of the framing–Cronenberg uses mostly medium to long shots, eschewing close-ups for the most part, but still holding the camera close enough to the protagonist that we never get a sense of release from the prison of his delusions; and of course Fiennes’ ability to completely lose himself in the role.
Then there is the presentation of the film’s flashbacks–the way Spider’s present suffering is a kind of unwilled repetition of the childhood events that precipitated (or that were) his madness, culminating in his murder of his mother. In all these scenes we see the adult Spider as a spectator in the very scenes that he is remembering–or confecting–and that his boyhood self is enacting. This unusual way of presenting the events of the past works powerfully for several reasons. It makes it impossible to separate what is objective from what is subjective; it emphasizes the way the past lives on in the presentt and cannot be separated out from it. This is the case even when that past is an imaginarily distorted one; by putting the adult Spider in the frame as an observer of the childhood Spider’s experiences, fantasies, and actions, we get a terrible sense of passivity–the point of view of the spectator is an irreducibly passive one, compelled to witness what the spectator does not want to witness, even if he has in fact imagined/created those events himself. There are strands of voyeurism, complicity, and despair here that are impossible to disentangle; this is a very different model of voyeurism than that which is common in most narrative film.
I have no complaints about the artistry and brilliance of Cronenberg’s new film. In a way, it is the culmination of certain things he has been trying to do, with varying degrees of success, for a long time–the claustrophobic implosion of possibility, and the passively tragic vision arising therefrom, is a feature of almost all of Cronenberg’s films, and has been especially emphasized in his later ones–Spider does more fully and more powerfully, for me, what such earlier films as Crash and M. Butterfly were trying to do. But in this, as in most of Cronenberg’s later films (except perhaps for Existenz) there’s a dimension missing, something that was present in Cronenberg’s earlier work (Scanners and Videodrome, and also The Fly): a sense of monstrosity as a source of transformation as well as of terror. These earlier films were about the terrors of otherness; otherness cannot but be terrifying, because it disrupts who and what we currently are (and especially who/what the heterosexual male subject is), but it also offers glimpses–often in these earlier films associated with new technologies–of difference, of something beyond the horizion of what we can imagine. Cronenberg’s later films altogether lack this sense of potential transformation; everything is closed off, everything implodes. Now masculine terror at otherness is played out, not in the threat of otherness as an uncontrollable explosion, but in a total closing off, a claustrophobic interiority. Dead Ringers was the one film of Cronenberg’s in which these two terrifying tendencies–explosion/transformation and implosing/claustrophobia played out with each other in scarily perfect balance. Spider is the best expression Cronenberg has yet made of his later vision of tragic interiority–but I miss the scary and exhilarating outwardly-directed metamorphoses of his earlier films.