cannes 2022

Cronenberg’s Cannes Comeback

The director’s stomach-turning new movie has him back in the festival’s good graces.

David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen pose. Photo: Sarah Meyssonnier/Reuters/REUTERS
David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen pose. Photo: Sarah Meyssonnier/Reuters/REUTERS
David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen pose. Photo: Sarah Meyssonnier/Reuters/REUTERS

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The first thing I ask David Cronenberg about are the abdomens. The Canadian writer-director, who’s been described as the “Godfather of Body Horror” by some and “beyond the bounds of depravity” by others, has made nearly two dozen movies since 1975. By my count, almost half of them feature somebody reaching into their own stomach cavity to pull out an object, shoving objects into their stomach, reacting in abject shock as something explodes forth from their stomach, or having their stomach torn open and emptied by a malevolent entity. In his latest film, Crimes of the Future, which premiered at Cannes and hits theaters June 3, the stomachs are the whole point: The movie takes place in a dystopian near future where everyone is doing surgery on each other for fun, sensually slicing into each other’s torsos to gaze at, lick, and sometimes yank out the organs therein.

When I meet the 79-year-old director on the patio of a French hotel room the day before the film’s festival premiere, I want to know: What happened to his own body to make him so obsessed with stomachs?

“I’ve had a couple of hernia operations,” he says from behind a pair of sunglasses that match his head-to-toe black outfit, topped off with a baseball hat for his 1999 film Existenz, about plugging the other side of one’s torso into a video-game console. “Nothing more exotic than that, I’m afraid.” He apologizes for the sunglasses — he’s “finding it very bright.” He got them for free on an earlier trip to Cannes but wasn’t able to wear them until recently, when, as he puts it, he had “plastic lenses” put into his eyes to replace his need for a prescription. (“I am bionic for sure”). For Cronenberg, a man who says he has “never gone to therapy” because “my parents were really sweet,” the anatomical fixation is mostly an issue of logistics. “If you want to get into somebody’s heart, you have to crack their ribs apart and everything,” he says. “If you want to get into somebody’s body, this is where you would naturally go.”

Viggo Mortensen and Léa Seydoux in Crimes of the Future. Photo: © Neon/Everett Collection

Cronenberg has been poking and prodding and exploding and decapitating and mutating the human form for the entirety of his film career, which has somehow still brought him to the genre-shy Festival de Cannes six times. On his first go-round, in 1996, Cronenberg scandalized the entire Croisette with Crash, an adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s 1973 novel about people who are sexually aroused by car accidents. People walked out in droves; critics called him “perverse” and “sexually deviant”; the Cannes jury, split on the film’s merits and egged on by president Francis Ford Coppola, refused to award him the Palme d’Or and instead gave him a Special Jury Prize “for originality, for daring and for audacity,” which still manages to sound like a neg. When I tentatively bring up the whole ordeal, assuming it might be a sore spot, Cronenberg laughs like someone recalling a wild night out in college. “There were 500 crazed journalists wanting to kill me and saying I should be put in jail and all my cast should be executed,” he says, sipping his cappuccino. “I was thrilled!”

In his successive four trips to Cannes — for 2002’s Spider, 2005’s A History of Violence, 2012’s Cosmopolis, and 2014’s Maps to the Stars, all of which veered away from the overt body horror of his earlier work in favor of subjects slightly more palatable to the mainstream — Cronenberg received positive-to-mixed reviews and varyingly lengthy standing ovations, but he has still never won the top prize. (Something everyone else seems to care about more than Cronenberg: “I’ve won enough prizes.”) After Maps, he took eight years off from filmmaking in what some believed was an official retirement from the business. Cronenberg insists it wasn’t that serious. “I didn’t really say that,” he says. “I said, ‘If Maps to the Stars is my last movie, it’ll be okay.’ Some fans got very upset by that, which is very sweet.”

In those eight years, he tried his hand at writing a novel (Consumed) because it was less of a “hassle” than filmmaking (“You don’t have to finance it”). He lost his wife of 43 years and for a while “didn’t have the heart” for directing. When his longtime producer Robert Lantos called him up a few years ago and asked him to revisit a script he’d written in 1998, he decided to take on One Last Job (which has, in classic Cronenbergian fashion, now mutated into Three Last Jobs: He’s shopping a new script, The Shrouds, at the Cannes marketplace and tells me he plans to adapt his novel). Cronenberg was surprised the old script still felt relevant, perhaps even more so than it had when he’d shoved it back into a drawer in the ’90s. Ultimately, he says, he didn’t change a single word in Crimes of the Future’s script. (The only thing that changed was the title — originally called Painkillers, he swapped it for the name of an underground short feature he made in the 1970s.) It’s about a near future where humans start inexplicably growing new organs, become unable to feel pain or develop infections, and evolve to digest microplastics (how did he know about the microplastics?). They react to these shocking evolutionary shifts in various ways: The government tries to suppress the organ growths; everyday people get their kicks by performing amateur surgery on each other in the streets. Longtime Cronenberg collaborator Mortenson stars as Saul Tenser, a performance artist who, along with his partner Caprice (Lea Seydoux), removes his prolifically sprouting organs on public stages while slowly realizing it may be better to give in to his body’s transformations.

The film has been described as an allegory about the nature of art and climate change; the cast says it functions on another level: as a metaphor for Cronenberg’s own career, about a man excavating himself in order to make deeply personal art. Mortenson calls it Cronenberg’s “most autobiographical film.” Kristen Stewart, who plays a government agent tasked with tracking and suppressing the world’s rapidly increasing supply of new organs, said, “He’s excavating these organs and coughing them up, and he’s like, How long am I going to be able to do this?

In the lead-up to the film’s festival -premiere, much of its early press focused on whether the film’s more graphic sequences — which include a child murder and a public autopsy, a dude who’s sewn a bunch of ears all over his body, Stewart shoving her hands down Mortenson’s throat, and more glossy organs than a megachurch — would cause Cannes to pull another Crash with the French fainting in droves before standing back up and calling Cronenberg a psycho perv. But with the recent 4K Criterion release of Crash certifying its status as a misunderstood cult classic, and last year’s Palme d’Or winner Julia Ducournau openly citing Cronenberg as an inspiration for her car-sex masterpiece Titane, and the fact that the world has gotten 600 percent more unhinged in the time since Crash’s release, is it possible that Cannes is ready to celebrate him instead of threaten to imprison him? “I think people have caught up in a sense with Cronenberg,” Mortenson says. “I don’t know if Titane having won last year is a benefit, or if it’s like, Okay, we did that once. We don’t have to do that now for a few years.

For his part, Cronenberg is relatively blasé. “I’d rather they didn’t walk out, because I didn’t make it for people to walk out. But if they feel that way? I’ve had it happen before. It didn’t kill me.”

At the premiere, Cronenberg and his cast look blissful on the carpet. The director, in a pair of white gogglelike sunglasses to block the camera flashes, sips a Perrier. Stewart is sporting a crop top and high-waisted skirt that frame the exact part of her Cronenberg most loves to filmically desecrate. Later, she tells me that the shirt was so tight that it hurt her. “I walked out with these red, like, fuckin’ lacerations on my stomach. It was very in keeping with the movie,” she says. “I cut myself open.”

During the movie, groups of people walk out every ten minutes or so, usually when someone onscreen is moaning sensually as another character probes their innards. Most of the audience seems rapt, though two people next to me fall asleep. As the credits roll, the theater is silent and it’s unclear whether it’s in reverence or disgust. “I was like, Ooh, people don’t know how to feel,” Stewart tells me later. “They don’t know if they should clap or not. I felt like it was the fuckin’ Will Smith moment where everyone was like, Yes? No? No. Okay, actually no! Like, do people have to look to their left and right to see if people like it before they clap?”

From left: Cronenberg and his cast on the red carpet. Photo: Gareth Cattermole/Getty ImagesPhoto: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images
From top: Cronenberg and his cast on the red carpet. Photo: Gareth Cattermole/Getty ImagesPhoto: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

Then the lights go up and Cronenberg and his cast receive a seven-minute standing ovation, which, in Cannesspeak, means, “We basically liked it, we think.” A cameraman inside the theater thrusts a mic at Cronenberg and projects his face onto the screen. “I’m very touched by your response,” he says to the still-applauding crowd. “I hope you’re not kidding. I hope you mean it.”

“I wouldn’t see this movie on purpose in my life,” I hear one French woman say as we all shuffle out of the Lumière. “But clearly there are very big fans of him here who are freaking out. There were thousands of people trying to get tickets to the screening and couldn’t.” (She’s referring to the hordes of teens waiting outside the theater for a glimpse at Cronenberg.) Another woman is animatedly trying to explain the plot of the film to her boyfriend: “So surgery is the new sex but it’s also art made from suffering, and there is a doctor who makes zippers into your body.”

At the after-party, the consensus in the room is that the screening went well. Reviews pop up as the night goes on with many critics hailing it as a thrilling return to Cronenbergian body-horror form; the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis calls it “easily the spookiest, most original and intellectually provoking selection that I’ve seen here so far.” Nobody calls for Cronenberg’s head or even his kidney. “I know Cannes was a tough crowd, but it seemed okay?” says Scott Speedman, who plays a renegade railing against the government’s attempts to suppress the shifts in human evolution. Stewart, now in a crop top and jeans, shuffles playfully to Missy Elliott alongside Ducournau, who popped in for the premiere and the festival’s 75th anniversary party. Seydoux sips rosé in a corner.

Cronenberg is seated quietly on a couch away from much of the hullabaloo. “I am trying to relax,” he says. I notice that every food item on offer looks like it’s been designed to resemble a pile of organs: vitello tonnato draped heavily over a cracker, little bowls of unidentifiable mushy meats and vegetables stacked on top of each other.

I ask the director if the food is meant to evoke the film’s bodily visuals. He looks me right in the eye. “Are you crazy?” he asks.

The morning after, at the film’s 10:30 press conference, Cronenberg is introduced as “a gentleman who has the word cinema tattooed on his organs.” He’s clearly feeling spunky and irreverent — he jokes about how Mortenson is his eternal slave. When he’s asked a muddled question about “aging and death,” replies, “That was such a downer of a question.”

At the end of the conference, members of the audience shove their way to the front of the room for autographs and photos, desperate to bring home a tangible chunk of their heroes. The press conference host pleads with them: “Just don’t lie on the table.” Cronenberg, Stewart, and Seydoux all make a mad dash for the exit, but Mortenson stays, patiently acquiescing to his screaming fans. A few minutes later, both of us are sitting on a nearby rooftop, and I ask him why he didn’t leave with his co-stars. He takes a long pull on a hand-rolled cigarette, staring off into the middle distance. “What’s the harm in stopping and talking if you have time to do it?” he says. Seydoux, on another couch a half-hour later, is a bit more philosophical about the whole thing. “I was thinking when I was watching the film last night, Oh, this is exactly what we’re living right now, in Cannes, with all the cameras,” she says. “I give something of myself that’s very intimate, and they” — fans — “do whatever they want.”

I find Cronenberg again, who’s sitting near a sunny spot on a patio, soaking in the moment. “We keep trying to suppress you, and you keep popping up!” he says by way of greeting. He tells me he’s feeling buoyed by the fact that the audience “received the film the way I sent it out.” What he means, I think, is that rather than fixate on the shiny spleens of it all, Cannes viewers saw the film for what it was — a tender, probing (in more ways than one), and essentially tragic exploration of the human race’s current predicament: Do we fear and fight the rapidly changing dark future we’ve set up for ourselves, or do we try to embrace the world we’ve broken and change ourselves instead? “The audience really, I think, have felt it in its complexity,” he says. “It hasn’t hit them as a horror film or even a sci-fi film or a noir film, because they also talk about the melancholy and the sadness of parts of it. And that’s really quite sweet. It’s understood and felt.”

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