A History of Violence

I love when I can re-use a picture...

A warning: the following is not a review of A History of Violence, David Cronenberg's latest, but a rumination on certain aspects of it. There will be spoilers galore, so if you still want to see this movie, stop right here. I mean it. I read too much beforehand, and I think the film would have hit me in a more visceral way if I hadn't.

First, I liked it. A lot. I wasn't entirely sure as I walked out a theatre, I had to think about it a bit, but now that I have...It is a bit too constructed in places, too crafted. On the other hand, wow.

One aspect I want to linger on is the two sex scenes. A friend told me he'd felt really uncomfortable watching them. Granted, he was in that theatre with his -according to the guy himself- uptight father, while I saw it with my significantly not-uptight (untight? downtight?) dad. Still, the guy complained that the scenes were, to him, "unappealing", "unpleasant" and the characters (played by Viggo Mortensen- who, I believe, must be the ultimate man, painfully perfect almost. Did you know he writes wonderfully, too?- and Maria Bello) "came of as unsophisticated retards".

Truth be told, I'd heard so much about these sex scenes beforehand that I was a bit let down. They weren't that explicit at all in terms of nudity (there is one shot of Maria Bello kind of nekkid that doesn't even technically occur in one of the sex scenes, and while we do get to see Viggo's buttocks, that's pretty much it) and while there was one sex scene, a pretty violent one at that, shown from beginning to end, it was to me fascinating rather than unsettling.

What also is uncommon about the film is that the first sex scene features oral sex, 69 to be presice, and many reviewers were boggled by this. I don't quite understand why. I mean, I both don't understand why it is so rare and why it was considered to be shocking in this one, especially because for once, this is not a gratuitous sex scene. It might not contribute to the plot, but it does work very well on both a personal and a symbolic level: it both illustrates the relationship between these two people and it creates a wondeful contract with the latter sex scene that really exemplifies the film's shift in tone, and the main character's shift in identity.

Let me expand a bit more on this latter thing. In the first scene Viggo is Tom Stall. He's not playing Tom Stall, he is Tom Stall. For example, as his wife gets changed in the bathroom, he is nervous, doesn't quite know what to do with himself. He straightens the covers, folds them open, grins at himself. He opens his shirt unsurely, starts undoing his belt, but it's clearly mostly because he doesn't know what else to do with his hands. When Edie comes out in the cheerleader outfid, he is honestly amazed. Another important characteristic of this scene is that it revolves around oral sex. This is not just for shock value at all, nor for titillation. It is because oral sex, no matter how much the giver might like or dislike doing it, is functionally a giving, unselfish act. Tom starts it to thank his wife, and she reciprocates. It shows that they love each other and are willing to sacrifice things for each other, and its innocence is further accentuated by their acting like teenagers. Mostly, it is in sharp contrast with the second scene.

In this second scene, the sex is all about taking. It starts out as a fight, kicking and grabbing throats, but all along there is sexual tension and this comes out soon enough. The sex is rough, with barely any words, and instead of the glowy aftermath of the first scene, it ends as abruptly as it started. Viggo is Joey in this scene, not the loving husband but the brutal, carnal killer. It's a scene that certainly unsettles, but for me, this was mostly because I found myself to be slightly turned on by it. I think this was probably Cronenberg's intention, just as it seems his intention with this entire film to confront us with how violence and sex appeal to us, turn us on.

What I admire about these sex scenes is the level of reality. I don't mean I think theses kinds of scenes happen everyday, but there's no soft focus, no underscoring music. Instead, there's clumsiness: in the first scene, Edie throws her husband's belt behind her and get startled by the sound it makes hitting the wall. In the second scene, we see her back later, covered with bruises: this sex is not without consequences, physical or mental.

Cronenberg seems like such an intelligent, fascinating man. I'd love to meet him and pick his mind, even if the thought of what I could find is a little unsettling. Or who am I kidding. It's because I think I might find something unsettling that I'm so interested, of course.