David Cronenberg’s films don’t age. This is incredible when one considers the range and speculative nature of the material that often attracts the director, particularly during the first half of his career. Many low-budget 1970s and 1980s genre films are quaint now, but the years haven’t diluted Cronenberg’s early “body horror” films one iota, and, in many cases, time has intensified their outrage, which mixes the visceral with the cerebral in a fashion that’s distinct to the filmmaker. Cronenberg has subsequently worked in every genre, save, arguably, for comedy, though his films are reliably informed by a subterranean strain of mordant humor. He’s adapted a handful of notably subjective novels thought to be “un-filmable,” and he’s consistently wrestled with defiantly alienating subjects, often associated ambiguously with unconventional sex.
This agelessness springs from an uncommon authorial focus, directness and clarity, which is reflected by the films’ deceptively unfussy, nearly sculptural mise-en-scène (honed in significant part with a group of longtime collaborators). Cronenberg rarely strains for melodrama, never leans too heavily on the score when silence or diegetic noise will more effectively establish emotion or mood. The director never approaches shocking material as if it’s shocking, and this casually intellectual need to explore something, while reserving judgment in a manner that’s analytical yet human, is the very center of his cinema. Cronenberg’s greatest accomplishment, though, may be the mystery that tinges all of his films, which still, for all their thematic ambition, ultimately possess an element of unknowability. The weird pull of these films can be attributed to a contradiction: They’re the work of a literalist who’s determined to plumb the figurative.
Even the director’s most rabid fans will find Cronenberg’s debut to be a tough sit. The film is an abstract and bone-dry collage of images and sequences of young telepaths interacting in a vast corporate building, while disembodied narration tells us of the experiments that are being performed on them. The similarly themed Scanners is vastly more accessible, but Stereo evinces a compassion for its characters that’s lacking in the former, and there are a number of sophisticatedly lonely images that pave the way for memorable moments in Shivers and The Brood, among others.
Fast Company (1979)
Cronenberg’s weirdest movie bar none. The talking assholes of Naked Lunch have nothing on the reality of a drag-race movie as directed by the king of body horror. The film is diverting, but the director’s discomfort with the uplifting platitudes of the good-old-boy narrative prevent it from taking off. Cronenberg savors the processes of maintaining the dragsters, which is to say that the non-action scenes are characterized by a sense of bracing visual tactility that’s missing from the theoretical high points of the film: the racing sequences. Fast Company’s characters are flat where they should be rowdy, and the atmosphere is intellectualized, chilly, and self-conscious where it should be unpretentious and fun-loving. A cruel and unceremonious ending, which might fit a characteristic Cronenberg film, exacerbates the tension between the essentially pat, assuring nature of the story and the anti-authoritative sensibility of its teller. The director’s interest in the potentially alluring textures of cars would find a far more distinct expression years later with Crash.
Crimes of the Future (1970)
Expands on Stereo’s chilly sense of personal discombobulation, reaching toward a macabre deadpan aesthetic that would find fruition in later films. As in the similarly inchoate Stereo, detached voiceover supplies a horror story overtop images of people who’re doing vaguely defined things in existentially anonymous office buildings. Gradually, Crimes of the Future becomes a surprisingly thorough and anticipatory working draft of the prototypical Cronenberg body-horror film, dramatizing, with characteristically repulsed fascination, a series of biological mutations that usher in a micro-culture given to cannibalism, pedophilia, and other practices that indicate a looming erasure of personal identity.
M. Butterfly (1993)
Awfully stodgy and theoretical. Cronenberg’s aversion to sentiment and overstatement often scan as bracingly disciplined, unblinking, and un-self-conscious, but this film is pared down to the bone. The director wisely downplays the overt French-Chinese politics of David Henry Hwang’s play, allowing much of the “Oriental” obsession that blinds Jeremy Irons’s diplomat to assert itself physically through his affair with John Lone’s gender-masked opera singer. But the relationship, as dramatized, is too cold and abstract to take hold in the imagination, and Irons and Lone are poignant individually, but have no chemistry with one another. That’s partially the point, as their relationship is built on a series of false cultural bottoms, but this divide also fosters an almost contemptuous “who cares?” reaction within the audience that’s compounded by the disastrously anticlimactic staging of the diplomat’s discovery that his lover is really a man. The images are ravishing, suggesting a China that only exists in a white man’s dreams, but this tale of sexual obsession is dead from the waist down.
Maps to the Stars (2014)
Cronenberg is a peerless orchestrator of chic metaphorical chamber dramas, but Bruce Wagner’s script encourages him to operate almost too comfortably within his hermetic wheelhouse, which favors characters who undergo vicious alterations or transformations that embody their succumbing to obsession. Perhaps it’s the satirical Hollywood Babylon milieu, which recalls too many films and scans as smug and obvious. With the exception of Mia Wasikowska, a remarkable actress who appears incapable of a false gesture, the actors are unconvincing and occasionally disastrously over the top, particularly Julianne Moore, who proves again that she’s tone deaf in roles that require a sense of humor. There’s a metaphysical horror motif that connects the film explicitly to Cronenberg’s body of work and literalizes the governing theme of incestuous, walled-off alienation, but nothing adds up to anything. Maps to the Stars is the rare Cronenberg film that actually is what its detractors claim it to be: a stylized bauble in love with its own hollowness.
Angry, narratively efficient, and memorably lit in shades of industrial fugue-state gray by cinematographer Mark Irwin, Scanners certainly fulfills Cronenberg’s narrow design, which is also partially the rub. The film is surprisingly routine and emotionally drab for the director, particularly compared to the tragic familial intimacy of his prior film, The Brood. The telepath story often appears to be at odds with the actual plot, which is a stalk-and-run narrative that reduces the power of the best scenes. The characters are interchangeable, and that’s more noticeable than usual because the film doesn’t quite have a governing metaphor. The car chases and gunfights are disappointingly ordinary considering that the principles can mentally connect to supercomputers or other humans’ nervous systems. This film ends at a point where Cronenberg’s subsequent Videodrome would just be getting started: with identities mooted and the new flesh beginning to emerge.
Suggests what Total Recall might’ve been like if Cronenberg had directed it as originally planned. Also the closest the filmmaker has ever gotten to staging an outright farce, as the plot is composed of a purposeful chain of convoluted absurdities that collapse in on themselves, especially in a meta ending that bluntly parodies not only gaming, but filmmaking along with any other endeavor that might supplant reality, assuming that anyone can agree on what the term means to begin with. Video-game consoles are imagined, in one of the most powerfully irrational images in the director’s oeuvre, as fleshy quivering bladders with umbilical cords that connect to gamers via artificially fashioned openings in the spine (which, surprisingly, aren’t vaginal in appearance). eXistenZ is a greatest-hits party for Cronenberg: The lost-in-La-La-land narrative is reminiscent of Naked Lunch, right down to the preponderance of squishy mutants, and there’s also the anxious, quasi-invasive, yet erotic sexual imagery that surfaces in every other film. eXistenZ doesn’t have much tension until the ending (it lacks the snap of a classic), but it abounds in the vivid textures and grossly tactile objets d’art that have understandably rendered Cronenberg a museum darling.