The Shrouds review – David Cronenberg gets wrapped up in grief

<span>Gimlet-eyed seriousness. …Vincent Cassel and Diane Kruger in The Shrouds.</span><span>Photograph: Sophie Giraud</span>
Gimlet-eyed seriousness. …Vincent Cassel and Diane Kruger in The Shrouds.Photograph: Sophie Giraud

David Cronenberg’s new film is a contorted sphinx without a secret, an eroticised necrophiliac meditation on grief, longing and loss that returns this director to his now very familiar Ballardian fetishes. It’s intriguing and exhausting: a quasi-murder mystery and doppelganger sex drama combined with a sci-fi conspiracy thriller which comes very close to participating in that very xenophobia it purports to satirise. And among its exasperating plot convolutions, there is a centrally important oncologist who was having a possible affair with the hero’s dead wife and who had also been her first sexual partner as a teenager – but who never appears on camera.

Yet for all this, the film has its own creepy, enveloping mausoleum atmosphere of disquiet, helped by the jarring electronic score by Howard Shore. We are in Toronto of the present or near future in which a wealthy and stylish widower and entrepreneur called Karsh (Vincent Cassel) has founded a restaurant with a cemetery attached: a state of the art burial place where people can bury their loved ones with a new “shroud” whose thousands of tiny cameras can record and transmit real time, 8K pictures of the body’s decay, which you can watch on your smartphone.

Needless to say, Karsh is getting pictures of his late wife Becca (Diane Kruger) down there; she died after an impossibly painful struggle with metastatic breast cancer. Karsh has a weird AI avatar assistant on his computer system called Honey (with Becca’s voice) and he also has a close relationship with Becca’s identical twin sister Terri (also Diane Kruger) who was once married to shambolic, hangdog IT engineer Maury (Guy Pearce). But when the cemetery is vandalised and its info compromised, Karsh suspects Chinese government involvement, the Chinese having invested in the technology involved. Or possibly it’s Maury who is a suspect, or maybe his late wife’s oncologist-slash-possible-lover-slash-former-boyfriend who now lives in Iceland, which is coincidentally the centre of an eco-protest movement which may also be connected with the attack. And together with his gamey involvement with Terri, Karsh is having an affair with a beautiful, blind woman while regularly having steamy dreams and kink-hallucinations of Becca in her various post-op states.

And where is it all leading? Well, maybe nowhere – and if that is the point, then where does that point take us? Perhaps that we will never be free from grief, never be free from love, never be free from desire, never be free from the fragile body itself – and never be free from hoping for resolution, for meaning. It’s a movie presented with absolute conviction and gimlet-eyed seriousness, but less wayward humour than Cronenberg often gives us. There are shocks – the crack of a hip bone made me jump out of my seat – as well as a weary fatalism. Perhaps the shrouds themselves make it difficult for the film to breathe.

• The Shrouds screened at the Cannes film festival.