As the Canadian master of the perverse returns to Cannes with his first film in eight years, what better time to look back at his career, from Shivers to Crash
As you read this, I will be packing my tuxedo, linen shirts and several packets of ibuprofen for the Cannes film festival, which kicks off on Tuesday – back where it belongs in the calendar, in the springy blush of May. At last year’s pandemic-delayed July edition, a wildcard Palme d’Or win for Julia Ducournau’s genderqueer cars-and-carnality freakout Titane seemed an apt response to the humid conditions.
For viewers at home, Mubi’s Cannes takeover season offers some highlights from festivals past, from little-seen finds such as Mauritanian director Med Hondo’s powerful 1967 immigrant portrait Oh, Sun to more recent successes such as Laurent Cantet’s impassioned schoolroom debate The Class. Three of Mubi’s selections are from last year’s festivals, not yet seen in the UK: Arnaud Desplechin’s airless Philip Roth adaptation Deception was a disappointment, but Nadav Lapid’s jury prize winner Ahed’s Knee is exhilarating stuff, a scorching, incensed attack on what it perceives as the cultural complacency of contemporary Israel. A more gentle must-see is Mariner of the Mountains, Brazilian director Karim Aïnouz’s wistful, lyrical documentary on his own mixed heritage and sense of not-belonging, tracing his first ever trip to his father’s homeland of Algeria in his mid-50s.
I, meanwhile, am preparing by revisiting the oeuvre of David Cronenberg, the 79-year-old Canadian master of the perverse and the perverted, who will return to Cannes with Crimes of the Future, his first film in eight years. More significantly still, it’s his return to body horror – the genre that made his name, but one he hasn’t fully embraced since 1999’s eXistenZ.
I began with the obvious precedent for Crimes of the Future: Cronenberg’s lo-fi, hour-long 1970 feature of exactly the same name (Arrow Player), though we’ve been told not to expect a remake. Often bracketed with his similarly brief, scrappy film Stereo (Amazon Prime), it set the template for a number of the film-maker’s great works, preoccupied as it is with irresponsible medical fetishism, masculinity in crisis and the human body turning villainously on itself.
The 1970s would see him extending those fixations into neater, sharper horror narratives. Shivers (Apple TV) fuses the terrors of parasite and sexual assault into one horrific pandemic, while Rabid (BFI Player) and The Brood (Amazon) both reconfigure the female body as a weapon; in the latter, the womb is literally externalised, reproducing manifestations of rage.
Videodrome (Google Play) spent the director’s highest budget to date on a deliciously gross allegory for the media’s technological control of the human mindset; The Fly (Disney+, inappropriately enough) finally got Cronenberg a hit, though its relatively straightforward update of a hoary mad-scientist story didn’t skimp on invasive grotesquerie.
Dead Ringers (BFI Player), my favourite Cronenberg, played things cooler, returning to themes of toxic masculinity and feminine exploitation with a surgical touch and an icily precise dual turn by Jeremy Irons. It played down the stomach-churning spectacle, but was the director’s most disturbing film until the hotly controversial Crash (Arrow Player), with its eye-searing imagery and darkly entangled queries about the boundaries of human desire and arousal, came along. In adapting JG Ballard, Cronenberg found a lither literary parallel for his most dangerous fixations than William Burroughs: his adaptation of the writer’s Naked Lunch (Arrow Player) looks sensational, but feels, unusually for Cronenberg, all up in its own head.
Since the loopy but less enduring video-game pyrotechnics of eXistenZ (Amazon), Cronenberg has been flirting with greater genre respectability, from the lean suburban noir A History of Violence (Google Play) to the corset-clad mind games of his Freud-Jung biopic A Dangerous Method (Curzon). There’s merit in all these experiments, but ultimately good taste isn’t Cronenberg’s sweet spot: bring on the retching.
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