David Cronenberg’s Dreams and Nightmares

David Cronenberg’s breakout film, “Shivers,” was both a success story and a scourge for the Canadian film industry. Released in 1975, it told the tale of a parasite that spreads through a Montreal high-rise, turning residents into sex-crazed zombies. The movie cost a hundred and eighty thousand dollars and brought in some five million, making it the highest-grossing film Canada had ever put out. Alas, it was not to everyone’s taste. Cronenberg gave his outrageous sci-fi premise a queasy sociological casing and played ruthlessly with horror-movie conventions, as in a bloody bathing scene à la “Psycho”—but with the deadly threat slithering up from the drain. The result was a parable of sexual revolution that split the difference between art and trash. In the U.S., the film was threatened with an X rating until Cronenberg agreed to remove a scene of a character hungrily stuffing bugs into his mouth. In Canada, Parliament debated whether its program of government-subsidized filmmaking had taken the cause of creative expression too far. Writing in the cultural journal Saturday Night, the novelist Robert Fulford excoriated Cronenberg as an opportunist gaming the system in a piece titled “You Should Know How Bad This Film Is. After All, You Paid for It.”

It’s one thing to get a bad review; it’s another to be accused of creating the “most perverse, disgusting and repulsive” film that a critic had ever seen. Cronenberg’s elderly landlady at the time read Fulford’s piece and apparently took literally his claim that her tenant made “sadistic pornography.” At the age of thirty-three, with a wife and young daughter, Cronenberg was suddenly evicted from his flat. A few weeks later, he recounted the ordeal in an editorial in the Globe and Mail, describing the “despicable hysteria” of Fulford’s article as an “attempt to take away both my livelihood and the expression of my dreams and nightmares.” He also revealed that, after he was evicted and had relocated to a house across the street, a city inspector arrived at his door to search the premises for evidence of filmmaking equipment in a residential setting, supposedly a zoning no-no. Cronenberg welcomed the man to come in and look around as much as he liked. “I felt confident and secure,” Cronenberg wrote. “This man would find nothing. He did not know what to look for.”

In the nearly half century since “Shivers,” through nineteen more feature films, Cronenberg has remained obsessed with bringing his nightmarish visions to life. He is fascinated by the flexibility and ferocity of the human organism, the myriad ways in which the body and its desires can betray us. He has explored those subjects using a clinical style punctuated by bursts of imaginative savagery, often achieved with stomach-turning, lo-fi special effects. His œuvre encompasses a gun made of gristle that fires teeth (“eXistenZ”); a typewriter with an anus (“Naked Lunch”); weaponized armpits (“Rabid”); a chest cavity reconfigured as a VCR (“Videodrome”); and, in “The Fly,” perhaps his best-known film, a human-insect mutant played by Jeff Goldblum. Many of his films have been met with revulsion or at least aggrieved ambivalence. Roger Ebert called “Dead Ringers”—about sibling gynecologists whose sinister intimacy dissolves in a haze of drug abuse, narcissicism, and sexual jealousy—the kind of movie “where you ask people how they liked it, and they say, ‘Well, it was well made,’ and then they wince.” When Cronenberg first competed at Cannes, in 1996, the jury was so flummoxed by the neurasthenic depravity of “Crash,” his adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s novel about car-wreck fetishists, that they jerry-rigged a special citation for “audacity.” Upon the film’s release in England, the country’s national-heritage secretary urged theatre owners not to show it. Cronenberg, in turn, has maintained a cool contempt for officious pundits and their agendas. He once joked to an interviewer, of his 1981 film “Scanners,” “I was exploding heads just like any other young, normal North American boy.” Like any North American boy, he achieved the infamous scene in question using a plaster cast stuffed with bits of leftover hamburger.

David Foster Wallace once wrote that “Quentin Tarantino is interested in watching someone’s ear getting cut off; David Lynch is interested in the ear.” Cronenberg (whose sensibility, like Lynch’s, is unmistakable enough to function as an adjective) has supplied his new film, “Crimes of the Future,” with a character who has ears growing all over his body and his eyes sewn shut. The warped extremity of Cronenbergian body horror has kept him at a distance from the mainstream, but it’s also earned him a respect and influence that few other cult directors can claim. His work has been the subject of film-studies courses, Ph.D. dissertations, and critical anthologies, driving up the intellectual value of genre cinema without ever gentrifying it. His peerless series of gross-out mindfucks and philosophical schlockfests have shaped art-making in the movies and beyond, from the corporeal jolts of Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” to the experimental pop of Charli XCX, who named a recent album “Crash.” Jordan Peele, an ascendant master of art-house scary movies, told the Wall Street Journal, in 2020, that watching “The Fly” taught him “the power of horror.” The veteran film critic J. Hoberman has called Cronenberg “the most provocative and consistently original North American director of his generation.”

“Crimes of the Future,” Cronenberg’s first feature in eight years, marks something of a return to form. (It premièred at Cannes on May 23rd and is in theatres on Friday.) In the twenty-first century thus far, Cronenberg has made a string of relatively refined films, including literary adaptations such as Don DeLillo’s Wall Street odyssey “Cosmopolis” and the when-Freud-met-Jung period piece “A Dangerous Method.” He also wrote a novel, 2014’s globe-trotting thriller “Consumed,” which garnered respectful reviews from the likes of Jonathan Lethem, who praised the “sculptural intensity” of its details. “Crimes of the Future,” by comparison, is old-school Cronenberg body horror. It bears the same name as one of his earliest films, from the seventies, an experimental feature centered on a melancholy dermatologist navigating a world wiped of fertile women. The new “Crimes of the Future” echoes the original as a dystopic tale of human devolution, though, in a recent interview, Cronenberg claimed that the recycled title didn’t signal any particular connection between the two. “They both are accurately called ‘Crimes of the Future,’ ” he said. “So why not do it?”

Based on a script that Cronenberg first wrote in the late nineties, under the title “Painkillers,” the new “Crimes” was shot in Athens and is set in an unspecified future, in a seaside town with jagged industrial wreckage strewn amid ancient ruins. Genetic mutations have led humans to continually grow new auxiliary organs and to lose the sensation of pain. The local attraction is a kind of surgical performance art. Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), a veteran of the scene, lies supine onstage as his superfluous parts are extracted by his lover, Caprice (Léa Seydoux), as part of a grotesque double act.

Where many other auteurs can be identified by their virtuosity with the camera, Cronenberg makes images that are spare and functional, sometimes verging on amateurish. A former film professor of mine used to joke that Cronenberg was “a genius without talent.” But his cool style has a way of peeling back cinematic conventions and clichés, and extracting the intellectual marrow at the core of his sci-fi scenarios. The tone of “Crimes of the Future” is grim and searching, and the narrative momentum is minimal. In the opening minutes, a static shot shows a small boy sitting on the bathroom floor absent-mindedly munching on a wastebasket made of plastic. At once matter-of-fact and ominous—and soon followed by an act of ghastly violence—the tableau serves as an overture for the coming allegory of biological paradigm shift. Cronenberg’s scripts are littered with incantations that scan like twisted New Age mantras: “go all the way through it,” “you have to play the game,” and, most famously, from “Videodrome,” “long live the new flesh.” In “Crimes of the Future,” an obsequious pencil-pusher (played by a twitchier-than-usual Kristen Stewart) hounds Saul to register his tumors in a new database. At one point she tells him, in a line that sounds like both a diagnosis and a come-on, “Surgery is the new sex.”

“People will say, ‘Oh, he’s back to body horror; he’s doing the same stuff he always did,’ ” Cronenberg, who is seventy-nine, told me recently. “But it’s never changed for me. My interest in the body is because, for me, it’s an inexhaustible subject—and of the essence of understanding the human condition. You will forgive me if I repeat myself. It’s just that these things are still true.” Before its première at Cannes, rumors circulated that “Crimes” 2.0 might cause viewers to suffer fainting spells or panic attacks. As it turned out, the Cannes première prompted only a few walkouts and received a standing ovation. Cronenberg, who dressed for the red carpet in white wraparound mountaineering glasses, told the audience, “I hope you’re not kidding.”

Since the late nineties, Cronenberg has lived in a three-story family home in the prosperous Toronto neighborhood of Forest Hill. One afternoon in April, I visited him at the house, which is shielded from the street by several trees. Martin Scorsese once wrote that he’d been nervous to meet Cronenberg, given the nature of his films, and then was surprised to discover that he looked like “a gynecologist from Beverly Hills.” Slight and spry, Cronenberg greeted me at the door, wearing a sweatshirt in a pale-blue shade similar to the color of his eyes. His silver-white hair, as always, was upswept neatly from ear to ear, and his manner was as even and pleasant as his appearance. The pianist Glenn Gould, another Torontonian, observed that the city offered its inhabitants peace of mind because it “does not impose its ‘cityness’ upon you.” Cronenberg, in that sense, was made in the image of his home town.

Cronenberg has lived alone since the death of his second wife, Carolyn, a filmmaker, five years ago, but he maintains close relationships with his three children—a daughter and son with Carolyn, and a daughter from his first marriage, to Margaret Hindson—all of whom live nearby. He gently dismissed my suggestion that we take a stroll through the neighborhood’s bustling, patio-lined strip of coffee shops and restaurants, though not for fear of being recognized. “I’m common as dirt around here,” he said, leading me past rows of family photos and a dark-brown Braunschweig piano passed down from Carolyn’s mother, before ducking into the kitchen to prepare us espressos. We sat down in the dining room, which is decorated with an enormous photorealistic portrait of Cronenberg’s face woven from threads by the Argentinian art collective Mondongo. “Viggo commissioned them secretly and gave it to me as a gift,” Cronenberg told me. “It’s pretty good. It’s me being God.” Nearly a decade ago, Cronenberg donated a trove of personal mementos and props to the Toronto International Film Festival, including the fleshy bio-ports from “eXistenZ” and the steel surgical tools from “Dead Ringers.” The only movie ephemera I spotted in his home was a miniature version of Brundlefly, from “The Fly,” which sat on a shelf near a cluster of bulbous vintage Genie Awards—Canada’s equivalent to Oscars statuettes—one of which was put to use as a murder weapon in Cronenberg’s scabrous 2014 showbiz satire “Maps to the Stars.”

When I asked Cronenberg, at one point, about the notable absence of teen angst or coming-of-age stories in his œuvre, he said, “It’s not a burr under the saddle for me.” Raised in Toronto in a middle-class Jewish family, he was by his own account a happy child. His father, Milton, was a local newspaper columnist and crime writer. His mother, Esther, played piano with the National Ballet of Canada. “In my family, art was something that you could do and probably should do,” he said. “People would come over and see five thousand books, hallways made of books because we didn’t have that many bookshelves. We were sort of unique on the block.” In his youth, Cronenberg was fascinated by the natural sciences, including botany and lepidopterology. In a 1992 book of interviews, “Cronenberg on Cronenberg,” he describes the focussed intimacy of empirical discovery: “What you saw through the microscope was fantastic. But when you looked up from the microscope, you were lost.” He was also a science-fiction writer and a budding cinephile. He recalled once visiting his neighborhood movie house, in Toronto’s Little Italy, to watch a children’s matinée, and noticing adult viewers emerging from another theatre across the street, weeping in broad daylight. “I thought, What did they see that made them cry?” he told me. “What an extraordinary thing. I certainly had never cried at the movies myself. And so I crossed the street and I saw that it was ‘La Strada,’ and it was my first indication that movies had that kind of power.”

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