David Cronenberg, surgeon in human nature

David Cronenberg fascinates as much as he confuses, seduces as much as he repulses, fascinates as much as he sows doubt and discord. His films, under their undeniably provocative layers, have an enormous tendency to produce reflection, fruitful speeches, and invite to engulf themselves in labyrinths of analysis. The images that emerge – the explosion of a skull in Scanners (1981), the penetration of a body with a television plasma into Videodrome (1983), a bloody ambush in Turkish baths in Shadow promises (2007) or a simple stain of blood on an immaculate sofa in Map to the stars (2014) – leaves a lasting imprint on the imagination they encounter, and always retains something resolutely contemporary, as if they were constantly catching up with reality on one side or the other, and systematically found a new break that they could ‘insert’.

Whether we appreciate Cronenberg’s films or not, the images they give birth to remain in our minds. Sometimes a movie gets old, for better or worse; David Cronenberg’s cinema, which probably has not only given birth to masterpieces, does not age like the others: it always finds an echo of the present. It is a cinema that is evolving, or that is “mutating”, one would say in the light of its filmography, as new interpretations emerge from it. This is perhaps what is special about his cinema: like everyone else stimuli Cronenberg’s films call for a reaction and never leave one indifferent, because they excite the moral sense and evoke reactions that are at least epidermal, in every sense of the word. And evoking a reaction is probably all that matters to Cronenberg.

Transformed bodies, violated morality

He had not released a movie since. Map to the stars, which gave Julianne Moore an interpretive award at the Cannes Film Festival. The director, born in Toronto in 1943, had malicious pleasure in portraying a neurotic, breathless and decadent Hollywood; in this fuel-hungry dream factory, Cronenberg delivered one of his most cynical and violent films, the culmination of a period in which the filmmaker gradually ignored the horrific images that made him famous – more than visible mutations, pollution or hybridization of bodies, no more yawning wounds to scrutinize – to settle into a surgical and corrosive aesthetic, as if Cronenberg penetrated into a deeper, less carnal rift and attacked something like the unconscious from an era, even if it means returning, in A dangerous method (2011), by the very source of the psychoanalytic theories by which his films are permeated.

Mia Wasikowska i Map to the stars (2014) © Daniel McFadden

After this long wait, which led some to believe that Cronenberg had simply retired after exploiting all the potential that cinema gave him, like David Lynch in his day – his last film, The Inland Empiregoes back to 2006 and the latest news director Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive is not ready to go back behind the camera -, the Canadian filmmaker finally returned to the limelight with a new film, The crimes of the future, which suggests that Cronenberg is not really done with “body horror”, a genre with rather vague contours, where he despite himself became one of the main characters in the intersection between the 1970s and 1980s.

It was at this point that Cronenberg made his mark in Canadian underground cinema. In his first experimental feature film made with the means at hand, such as Stereo (1969) and The crimes of the future (1970) – which does not have much to do with the homonymous film that we can discover today – the director sharpens his tools and develops the themes that will later return in his more assertive film. Then come the films stamped “body horror”, such as Goosebumps (1975), Rage (1977) or Chromosome 3 (1979), however still lacking the means and fortunately bordering on exploitation films, they still get people talking and animate the debates.

Chromosome 3 (The Brood) by David Cronenberg © Capricci

We spot pell-mell the recurring motifs in his filmography; a deviant sexuality correlated with a “fundamental” act of viral contamination, like the parasite that infects the occupants of a building that was suddenly attacked by a strange sexual fever in Goosebumpsmental trauma – chromosome 3, where patients’ mental disorders take the form of growths and other organic matter – bodily mutations, such as the vampire organ growing out of the armpit of the protagonist Rageor more broadly the exploration of new forms of enjoyment and this dream of one new meat “, As the character of Max Renn (James Woods) prophesies in Videodrome.

In addition to good and evil

It’s probably from Scanners (1980), his first real commercial success, that Cronenberg’s cinema retrospectively assumes a more intellectual and philosophical layer. The question of the relationship between body and technology, combined with a play on the increasingly blurred boundary between reality and fantasy, gradually mixes in his film – which Videodromewhere Max Renn’s character has a VHS player pushed into his own belly, or even into Fly (1986) with Jeff Goldblum, who is still the director’s biggest box office success to this day.

However, Cronenberg will always be right on guard against studies despite some tempting offers – he declined The return of the Jedi and worked for a while on the adaptation of Total recall (finally directed by Paul Verhoeven). Despite the recognition, Cronenberg always denied the temptation to mainstream. His film then initiates a reflection on new possible forms of existence: through their mutations, bodies reach a different level of reality, free themselves from traditional moral values, discover a different relationship to the world and to themselves through the encounter could not be more physical between man. and the machine.

James Woods ind Videodrome © All rights reserved

Before the “virality” specific to his cinema took a more psychological turn in the early 2000s, Cronenberg never stopped supporting his fascination with what transforms beings from within, and never gave in to too slight lethargy and rather went past the representation of hybrid beings, resulting in or not from the imagination of its characters. What we are thinking about Fly and the almost “lovely” transformation of Seth Brundle into a giant fly, False assumptions (1988), in which Jeremy Irons played twin surgeons who fantasized about a beauty contest for organs, in nude party (1991), adapted from William S. Burroughs’ groundbreaking and yet seemingly unsuitable novel – which had a major impact on the filmmaker – or even from eXistenZ (1999), where the transition to the virtual world presupposes connection to an organic game console, Cronenberg’s characters are never passive and develop in symbiosis with those grafted onto them.

Rejected at the entrance

This significant interest of the director of disease, contamination, and alteration of the organism refers less to a form of dissolution and nihilism than to a creative, even liberating event. “ For Cronenberg, illness allows the body to transform and invite itself again “, notes Fabien Demangeot in the essay he dedicated to the filmmaker (Infringement according to David Cronenberg, ed.Playlist Society). So it’s not surprising when the filmmaker decides to auction off – in the form of NFT – his own kidney stones; when he stages himself and embraces his own remains; or when he claims, in his first novel (Spent, ed.Gallimard, 2016), that “ philosophy is surgery; surgery and philosophy – a creed that seems to be repeated in her new film, in which the character Kristen Stewart whispers that “ surgery is the new gender “.

Crash by David Cronenberg © Carlotta Films

A movie like Crash (1996) undoubtedly marks the culmination of this surgical work by Cronenberg; the aesthetics become more radical, more abrasive. In this adaptation of JG Ballard’s novel, which hit the headlines when it was presented at the Cannes Film Festival, the damaged and mutilated body goes so far as to become a pure object of enjoyment for characters who develop in a disinfected world where only surfaces of metal cars and the scars seem to be able to give substance to the desire. ” Crash marks for Cronenberg the transition to a form of dreamlike and mental abstraction “, notes Olivier Père, cinema director for Arte, in the small work devoted to the film (Crash, dreams of steel, Carlotta Films) on the occasion of its 2020 release.

Cronenberg manages to create a mythology about wounded bodies.

It is true Crash marked a quite logical turn in Cronenberg’s work in the early 2000s. This one seems at first glance less subversive because it is deprived of science fiction and the very special texture of the fantasy magic elements that made the taste of his previous feature film. The filmmaker is nonetheless driven by the obsession with auscultating the interior of his characters: spider (2002) kl Cosmopolis (2012) then Map to the stars, the filmmaker thus continues to probe the depths of the human soul. His cinema is more theoretical and clinical – going so far as to play out the conflicting relationship between Jung and Freud in A dangerous method – not to say quite pessimistic about modernity. Saw no more mutations and protrusions, but the equally powerful explosion of drifts and deeply buried neuroses; after the human body, Cronenberg began to x-ray the social body and excavate its latent violence, as in The history of violence (2005), without a doubt one of his greatest films.

David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen on the set of Future crimes, in the cinema May 25, 2022 © Nikos Nikolopoulos

That Cronenberg today returns to a more organic cinema – which also seems to indicate The shrouds, his next dystopian thriller project with Vincent Cassel – is basically less surprising than exciting; Should we see in it the warning of an inspiration found in substance and form in a filmmaker who is called upon by a burning thematic horizon, or rather the temptation to theoretical consolation and self-quotation? For what is Future crimes will they be able to say that Cronenberg’s previous films have not already said in substance about the degeneration of modern man? We will find out soon.

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