Ralph Fiennes struggles with memory, identity,
T H E paraiiiissiiéeoleéifa'}: S Pl D E R '5 ST RATAG E M
The hero of his new film is a mumbling madman returned into the community. Why then does director
DAVID CRONENBERG so identify with Spider? Words: Tom Dawson
he title character of David Cronenberg‘s superb new
ﬁlm is a mentally disturbed man. played by Ralph
Fiennes. who is released after decades in an asylum and placed in a half-way house in London. Wandering forlome around his fonner haunts. this shabbily dressed and mumbling figure attempts to piece together the events in his childhood that led to the mysterious death of his mother (Miranda Richardson). Spider's version of the past. however. conceals a devastating truth about his own role in her demise.
So why. then. did Cronenberg say to journalists at last year's Cannes Film Festival: ‘Spider. c‘est moi"? Why should this acclaimed ﬁlmmaker feel such a passionate identiﬁcation with a tormented. deluded individual. so traumatised that he can barely speak?
‘The character of Spider had such a resonance for me.‘ says the silver-haired 59-year-old Canadian auteur. who throughout our interview demonstrates his peerless ability to analyse his own ﬁlms. Only once does he lose his train of
. a thought. when distracted by a background
conversation. He asks for the person to stop talking
in a way that indicates he doesn‘t suffer fools gladly.
a close connection to linglandf he says. ‘We have the queen on some of our money.’
He continues: ‘As a boy my father was an Anglophile. I would read boys‘ books that were very linglish. I ﬁrst came here in the mid-1960s and I‘ve been coming here ever since. There was no question in my mind of transferring Spider to North America — to tne it was essentially an linglish project.~
McCirath had to make very few changes to his screenplay once Cronenberg had committed to the ﬁlm. He had already shifted the book‘s time-frame from the 1930s and the l950s to the 1960s and the l980s. partly to give the material a greater topical resonance. 'ln the 1980s in America and Britain.~ says the New York-based writer. ‘the large psychiatric institutions were letting people into the community in a compassionate move that was also a ﬁnancial measure. People like Spider were left uncarcd for. ttnsupervised and at risk — in Spider‘s case. he just can't cope with the demons in his mind.’
McGrath wrote the book in the form of a first- person journal. but removed Spider‘s voice-over for the ﬁlm on (‘ronenberg’s suggestion. ‘I wondered how David was going to convey the madness and
‘I really felt that I could be Spider. although I torment of Spider} says McGrath. ‘given that he is don’t mean literally.’ he continues. ‘The fact is capable only of mumbling. But as soon as I saw
Spider is someone who is confused. Who has
Ralph Piettttes on set. I realised that the actor. through
struggles with memory and identity. I realised his eyes and his posture and his appearance. could afterwards that he is someone who is an archetype of take care of all of that..
an artist. He is passionately working 0” his
notebook. writing with great obsessiveness and
lilegantly controlled and deeply moving. Spider explores the experience of mental illness without
paranoia and intensity. but in a language no one can relying on crude visual effects to convey its
understand. The nightmare of any artist is that you protagonist’s haunting despair and isolation. lior will create something with great passion and A McGrath. whose father was a medical
intensity and it will not be understood.‘ Although it follows in a tradition of Cronenberg
IT superintendent at Broadmtmr. the object wasn't to
give an objective account of his behaviour. ‘l was.‘
embarking on supposedly unhlmable novels (see says the author. doing 11 from his point of view.
also Naked Lunch and Crash). Spider initially seems
atypical in terms of setting and content. The dank. post-war London locations are diametrically
opposed to the futuristic locales of his previous ﬁlm. eXistenZ. while Cronenberg fans hoping for the
body horror of. say. Dead Ringers might be disappointed by its slow-buming restraint.
Yet Cronenberg also stresses how Spider‘s ideas of twisted perceptions and fractured identities chime with his previous body of work. 'The films that I do.‘ he says. ‘tend to be about the creation of reality. that there is no absolute reality. eXisrenZ was very directly about that — the process that we get through to create an existence for ourselves. ln Spider you have someone who is struggling to technically recover his memories. but really he is reinventing them and rewriting them and rejigging them.’
Cronenberg became involved with Spider in the summer of 2000. when he received the script from British novelist Patrick McGrath. who‘d written the original novel. Ralph Fiennes was already attached to the project in the lead role. and Cronenberg. alongside his immediate afﬁnity to the character of Spider. realised that this was an opportunity to explore his own feelings towards linglishness. ‘Being Canadian. we have
18 THE LIST 16—30 Jan 2003
showing his unreliable reality”. And Cronenberg. thanks to the precise framing. camera movement and lighting of cinematographer Peter Suschitsky and also to the minimalist production design of Andrew Sanders. immerses us into Spider's disturbed state of mind. ‘I realised during the shoot that the ﬁlm was realistic only in terms of Spider's inner state.‘ says the director. ‘lt was all about expressing his solitude. his loneliness and his inability to communicate? (‘ronenberg is quick to praise the contributions of his actors on Spider. likening working with them to driving a l‘errari: 'You push your foot down and there‘s more power and nimbleness available] he says. More surprising perhaps. given the formal precision of the ﬁlm. is his admission that he didn't methodically plan out every scene. 'Some people have said to me: "Did it turn out the way you wanted?" That doesn't mean anything to me. because I don‘t know what I want in advance. Part of the fun is ﬁnding out why you're making the movie.‘ l’or (‘ronenberg in this case. that might be to discover something about his own obsessions. paranoia and passion as an artist.
Spider is on selected release from Fri 17 Jan. See review, page 23.