Magazine article Artforum International

Webbed Wonder. (Film)

Magazine article Artforum International

Webbed Wonder. (Film)

Article excerpt

DAVID CRONENBERG'S SPIDER stars Ralph Fiennes as a mentally disturbed man whose web of defenses unravels when he's transferred from an asylum to a halfway house in the squalid East End London neighborhood where he lived as a child. The film--which premiered at Cannes in May and opens this month in New York and Los Angeles--is adapted from the 1990 novel of the same name by Patrick McGrath, who also wrote the screenplay. An astonishing balancing act, Spider is both faithful to the novel and a distinctly Cronenbergian work. In both form and meaning, it is the most impeccably realized and rarefied film of the director's career.

Even more austere than Crash (1996) but suffused with a tenderness reminiscent of Dead Ringers (1988), Spider is an existential tragedy about impossible love--specifically, about the longing to return to a lost childhood paradise defined by the symbiotic bond between mother and infant. Each day, Spider (Fiennes) leaves the dank halfway house to venture into the polluted, yellow ocher atmosphere of a strangely depopulated East End. A slight, stooped figure covered in layers of tattered clothing, he walks uncertainly around the neighborhood as if in a dream where everything is familiar but jumbled. Occasionally he sits on a bench opposite a huge gasworks or in a fly-specked cafe, muttering to himself and writing in a crumpled notebook, covering every available space with tiny hieroglyphs.

Spider's explorations often take him to a nondescript row house where a ten-year-old boy lives with his pretty, cameo-faced mother and his brusque, angry father. The boy is pale with huge ears that would make him seem clownish if he weren't so frail and introspective. When he looks at his mother, his eyes fill with adoration and yearning. As Spider observes the family from outside their window or from a corner inside the house, it seems as if he is watching a movie he knows so well that he can mouth every word of the dialogue slightly in advance of the characters. When the father looks in his direction, he shrinks fearfully into the shadows. It's pointless, however, for him to hide, since everyone looks right through him.

Written in the first person, McGrath's novel is, in effect, Spider's diary--the place where he wrestles with a tangle of memories, fantasies, and immediate perceptions, working his way back to the traumatic childhood event that destroyed an already precarious hold on reality. First-person novels don't easily translate into films, especially when the narrator is as unreliable as Spider. Even the greatest "subjective" film narratives-Bresson's Pickpocket or Scorsese's Taxi Driver, for example--depend on voice-over, a device more literary than filmic. …

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