PRINT February 2003



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 café, 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. McGrath’s original version of the screenplay incorporated text from the novel as voice-over, but, more inventively, it made the adult Spider an on-screen spectator to his childhood memories. Discarding the voice-over entirely, Cronenberg further developed the trope of inserting the adult Spider into scenes that otherwise would have read as conventional flashbacks.

Set entirely within Spider’s tortured, fragmented psyche, the film shifts fluidly between present and past, and from memory to fantasy to a mixture of both, without ever marking the differences in time or registers of reality. It’s a bit like a ghost movie in reverse. Rather than the dead person getting a chance to hang around and watch how those he left behind cope without him, the living Spider lurks amid the ruins of his past while the specters that inhabit his troubled mind act out an oedipal horror story of forbidden desire, murder, and revenge. (One might also think of the film as an investigative thriller in which the detective and the criminal are the same person.) Spider believes that his father murdered his mother and brought a whore into their home to take her place. Woven from a confusion of projections and introjections, this story, in which Spider is a helpless bystander, is less devastating to him than confronting the true circumstances of her death.

Fragile and ephemeral but punctuated with menacingly sexualized gothic imagery, Spider could have borrowed its yellow-brown and gray-green palette from Lucian Freud, while its hermetic mise-en-scène and elliptical editing style are comparable to Bresson’s. In its restraint and selflessness, Fiennes’s performance has a near Bressonian quality as well. Cronenberg is less interested in mapping the schizophrenic psyche as a world apart than in showing that Spider’s need to make meaning and to cling to the possibility of an all-embracing love is what makes him fully human. “Oh Jeanne, what a strange path I had to take to find you,” says Bresson’s protagonist at the end of Pickpocket. Beginning with Dead Ringers, Cronenberg’s films are explicitly about Eros and the strange paths it takes. They’re also metaphors for the process of making art. Almost as reflexive as the novel, the film is a web of memory and illusion projected from Spider’s mind. Cronenberg’s unabashed empathy for his struggling protagonist makes Spider not merely harrowing but surpassingly sad.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight and Sound.