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In upcoming films, serious auteurs turn to big-name stars

Upcoming releases from Steven Soderbergh, Roman Polanski and David Cronenberg offer intriguing glimpses of the various ways serious directors use movie stars to explore their obsessions on the big screen.


Cinema buffs and celebrity-watchers rarely get excited over the same films.

But moviegoers of both inclinations can get their fix in France this season, as some of the most eagerly anticipated releases find idiosyncratic, intellectually rigorous “auteurs” directing supremely glittering, high-profile casts.

Upcoming works from Steven Soderbergh, Roman Polanski and David Cronenberg are indeed headlined by Hollywood heavyweights and rising European talents like Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Keira Knightley, Jodie Foster, Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender.

It may not be a new trend, but the three films – Soderbergh’s “Contagion”, Polanski’s “Carnage”, and Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method” – offer an intriguing glimpse at the various ways serious directors use movie stars to explore their obsessions on the big screen.

Soderbergh toys with actors – and the audience

“Contagion” (released November 9), Soderbergh’s medical mystery about a deadly supervirus, has the most red-carpet-ready cast of the year. Star-laden ensembles can be distracting, especially in movies that tackle current events or aim for authenticity, but here the filmmaker shrewdly uses well-known performers as an antidote to the grimness of his story. The appealing, familiar presences of Gwyneth Paltrow and Matt Damon as patients, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, and Laurence Fishburne as doctors, and Jude Law as a journalist allow us to enjoy a film that otherwise might be too harrowing to handle.

Luckily, Soderbergh is too committed to his unsettling story and his jittery, realistic style to let the cast turn “Contagion” into an Oscar winners’ showcase. The director’s work has always suggested a certain ambivalence toward actors. Though more mainstream films like “Out of Sight”, “Ocean’s 11”, and “Erin Brockovich” were vehicles for movie-star charisma, experimental efforts like “Bubble” and “The Girlfriend Experience” featured non-professionals and unknowns. In “Contagion”, Soderbergh keeps a tight rein on his players, coaxing hushed performances from, among others, a pale, puffy-looking Matt Damon and a Kate Winslet sporting pulled-back hair and little makeup. The film’s relentless pace and sober tone leave little room for “big” acting moments – aside from one show-stopping seizure by Paltrow and a few feverish tirades by Law.

Soderbergh also toys with our love of movie stars and our expectations of films that flaunt them. One of “Contagion”’s big-name players is ushered out of the story halfway through, and a lesser-known actress, Jennifer Ehle, steps into the spotlight as if to replace her. Paltrow, meanwhile, succumbs to illness within fifteen minutes (the spoiler was in the trailer), only to be resurrected in flashbacks, working a Hong Kong casino in a killer dress and full movie-star splendor.

Along the way, the filmmaker stops off for a mischievous moment in which a coroner peels off Paltrow’s scalp during an autopsy. Soderbergh may draw us in with those irresistible celebrity faces, but he is not afraid to subvert their beauty, as well as our -- and his own – star-hungry instincts and desires.

Polanski and his performers let off steam

If Soderbergh disciplines a powerhouse cast into underplaying, Polanski encourages his quartet of leads (Winslet, again, Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly) to let it rip in “Carnage” (released December 7). That difference can partly be attributed to the fact that Polanski’s movie is adapted from a play – Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage”, about two couples who clash over a playground dispute between their sons – that unfolds in real time in an apartment, and is therefore inevitably infused with the kind of theatricality Soderbergh avoids.

It is also because the director is essentially using four prestigious actors and their distinct performing styles to spice up a story that is disappointingly short on ideas; the rather unoriginal thesis in “Carnage” is that well-heeled Western citizens are anarchic monsters on the inside. Polanski keeps things lively with crisp staging and menacing camera angles, but “Carnage” is above all a feast for the thespians, who sink their teeth into their character arcs with relish: Winslet goes from prissy to potty-mouthed after a few swigs of whisky (and a spectacular bout of vomiting); Reilly’s affable grin eventually erupts into a caustic scoff; Waltz sheds his debonair manners to reveal an unapologetic misanthrope.

Foster, though, is the main attraction as the politically correct, passive-aggressive Penelope. Most of the famously discreet actress’s recent work has been characterised by a contained anxiety, but Polanski unleashes it; her darkly comical swings from painstaking politeness to operatic fury are the most compelling thing onscreen.

Even before Polanski’s experience in jail and under house arrest, films like “Repulsion” and “Rosemary’s Baby” suggested his interest in people cracking under the stress of enclosed spaces (a theme he continued to ponder in 2010’s “The Ghost Writer”). In “Carnage”, the characters try to leave the apartment but are drawn back inside by their need to keep arguing, and the performances, first controlled and then increasingly unhinged, reflect Polanski’s haunted fascination with confinement and release. When his actors let loose, filling the living room – and the frame – with outsized emotions, it is also Polanski exorcising his own pent-up demons.

Cronenberg gambles on a leading lady

Perhaps the unlikeliest casting of the year can be found in David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method” (released December 21), a thriller of ideas about the falling-out between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung over a patient, Sabina Spielrein. Edgy heartthrob Michael Fassbender plays the clean-cut Jung, while Viggo Mortensen, usually hunky and vaguely spaced-out, is a paternal, imperious Freud. But the real surprise is Knightley, an English beauty who has never displayed much depth or grit, as Sabina.

Though she has donned plenty of corsets for period films, casting Knightley as a brilliant Russian Jew suffering from hysteria was a gamble for Cronenberg, and the two have hardly played it safe: Knightley is the only one of the leads to attempt an accent -- a broad, erratic Eastern European brogue – and she walks a fine line between intensity and camp in early scenes, howling, kicking and jutting her jaw out grotesquely.

But Sabina’s breakthrough with Jung in therapy – “it excited me”, she admits of her father’s beatings – comes with a chilling cathartic gasp, and Knightley burrows deep into her character’s evolution. As Sabina embraces psychoanalysis, and with it her darkest impulses, falls in love and pursues a medical degree, the actress locates a core of fierce integrity in a woman who could have come off as repellent. The performance may be rough around the edges, but it’s hard to shake.

A convulsive livewire of erotic and intellectual hunger, Knightley’s Sabina is the character in the film that most embodies Cronenberg’s career-long fixation on the intersections of sex, violence and the human body. The performance also gives one of the director’s more classical efforts the sense of risk often associated with his work, as well as an emotional fullness that feels new. Cronenberg has taken a star and transformed her into an actress – and she, in turn, has made him a better filmmaker.

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