The Lists: Top 10 performances in David Cronenberg films

Posted by · 11:52 am · August 21st, 2012

After a divided reception at May’s Cannes Film Festival (and a UK release earlier this summer), David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis” finally opened for New York and Los Angeles audiences on Friday. On Friday, meanwhile, it opens wide, exposing itself itself to hordes of Robert Pattinson fanatics who might well find themselves baffled by Cronenberg’s (or rather Don DeLillo’s) chilly, talky, unapologetically freeze-dried essay on the alienation of the One Per Cent. They’ll do anything for love, those Twi-hards, but I’m not sure they’ll do that. 

The Pattinson fans that decide to give it a skip, however, will ironically be missing their idol’s best screen work to date. Many sneered when it was announced that the veteran director would be working with the modern matinee idol, not an actor yet treasured for immense range — but his pinched, low-temperature charisma has found its perfect manipulator in Cronenberg, a director who has seemingly always been as interested in a star’s physique as their technique. In my review of “Cosmopolis,” I noted “the effectively slippery [energy] inherent in Pattinson”s compellingly blank screen presence,” which perhaps sounds more backhanded than I intended; it’s harder than it looks to play a cypher. 

Pattinson’s is the latest in a long line of impressive, slightly (well, sometimes very) off-kilter characterizations in Cronenberg films, so it seemed apt this week to make the director the focus of one of our performance-themed lists. That Cronenberg isn’t routinely spoken of as an “actor’s director” says a lot more about our sometimes narrowly literal definitions of performance-driven cinema than his own generosity to his actors. In my interview with him last year about his psychoanalysis-themed drama “A Dangerous Method,” he offered the following perspective: 

“As a director, I”m most interested in photographing the human face talking. So I don”t think of lots of words as being automatically theatrical at all. I think of it as being essentially cinematic. A car chase is a car chase, and it”s not that interesting after a while. But an incredible face saying incredible words is, to me, the essence of cinema.”

Even when the films aren’t as wordy and star-oriented as “A Dangerous Method” or “Cosmopolis,” however, Cronenberg’s oeuvre consists of one performance vehicle after another, many of them dependent on expert actors’ agile changeability to carry their concerns of physical and psychological mutation, and occasional doubling — whether between personalities, species or characters entire. (Jeremy Irons, Judy Davis and Miranda Richardson have all taken on multi-headed roles in his films.) The word “corporeal” doesn’t flavor most Academic discussions of Cronenberg’s work for nothing, after all. 

Below, then, I’ve listed the 10 performances from Cronenberg’s filmography — only one of them Oscar-nominated, which shows what some people know — that have most resonated with me over the years, and have also come to personalize that remote adjective, “Cronenbergian.” There were plenty to choose from, plenty of names I regretted leaving out. Did R.Pattz make the cut? Check out the gallery below to see, and have your own say in the comments.

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