My kids primarily know David Cronenberg from an early “Rick and Morty”, where Rick carelessly but typically turns the entire population of planet Earth into grotesque monsters that they call “Cronenbergs”. There’s even a Rick and Morty mutation that refer to each other as “Cronenberg Rick” and “Cronenberg Morty”. IMDB lists the Canadian primarily as an actor, stating that he’s best known for being the obstetrician in Dead Ringers and the gynecologist in The Fly. (I’m sensing a theme, here, David.) His first major acting role was as the evil Scarecrow-esque psychiatrist in Clive Barker’s Nightbreed, a movie worth watching—but only the director’s cut. (It’s a long, long story.)
Despite his roles in that and the fact that he’s maybe done more acting recently than directing, and despite the fact that his most recent movies have been what you might call “respectable”—Map To The Stars, A Dangerous Method, Eastern Promises, A History of Violence—I think it’s fair to say that his greatest contribution to cinema, his essential Cronenberg-acity, is from his earlier films, specifically The Brood, Videodrome, The Fly, even Naked Lunch, which define the aesthetic of Cronenberg body-horror.
Scanners, obviously, is one the movies he’s most known for, but the body horror is limited to that one famous scene, and doesn’t have quite the “look”. No, Cronenberg’s aesthetic is so remarkable that you know it the instant you see it.
Needless to say, the introduction to Viggo Mortensen’s character in this movie, entombed as he was in one of several inexplicable and bizarre, not-really-science-fiction-type chairs and beds, put a rather big smile on my face. (The Boy, not having any association with the style thought it was interesting but could sense his own ignorance. Interestingly enough, we’ve never had a Cronenberg-fest locally in his lifetime that I am aware of.) It was also nice to see that Cronenberg, who turns 80 next year, could still direct an old-school dystopic body horror flick like he did 40 years ago—and even get some walkouts at Cannes.
I would hope it goes without saying that if you don’t like that kind of movie, you aren’t going to like this. But if you do, I felt this was a solid example, even if IMDB rates it at the bottom of his output. To me, it made aesthetic sense and just enough “logical” sense that I could follow the plot, understand the motives, and get what the overarching point was.
The story: In a grimy dystopic future, people no longer get pain or infection—this provides an amusing potential why for the griminess: people don’t clean or take care of things because there are no consequences to NOT doing it—but they are growing novel organs rather mysteriously. Saul (Viggo Mortensen) and Caprice (Lea Seydoux) are performance artists: He grows these organs and she publicly excises them through a baroque surgery device, the technology of which seems to have been lost or forgotten. The two have a reasonably lucrative gig doing this—although money never seems to change hands, so the payment may be in fame or attention or something else. They definitely (especially Saul) have a kind of rock star status.
The Government is taking an interest in these new organs, however, starting a Novel (or National, though which nation?) Organ Registry which Saul must visit—this is a little murky, actually. He’s got to register the organs, so it’s a public function, but it’s also a secretive thing that no one is supposed to know about, at least not yet. This kind of Kafka-esque situation includes a bureaucrat, Timlin (Kristin Stewart), who develops a thing for Saul.
It’s a good time to remind yourself that Kristin Stewart can act when they let her. In this she has a nervous sexual energy that threatens Caprice but is mildly amusing and flattering to Saul.
Anyway, there’s a secret police (I mean, any movie involving the government that doesn’t have a secret police is bigger fantasy than this, amirite?) agent named Cope who takes the position that there is a transformation going on in the world, and this transformation is from human to something inhuman, with all the implied menace. The core of the story centers around a murdered child whose internal organs may reveal something about the nature of this transformation, and Cope wants to shape the outcome of the investigations of the boy and round up all the pro-noveux human types.
So we got ourselves a paranoid, futuristic body-horror conspiracy fetish movie.
Sort of interesting to me: I couldn’t remember a Cronenberg horror movie with a major black character in it—I mean, he made the early ones in Canada in the ’70s initially—and I thought it was interesting that Cope was played by a black man (a Guinea actor named Welket Bungué) and his concern was with, essentially, racial purity. It was a nice touch, even if purely coincidental.
But the main issue is where Saul stands on all this. Because even he’s not sure. In fact, we get the impression that he, too, is rather repulsed by what his body is doing (body horror, after all) and views his surgical performances as a way to fight that. But he’s also increasingly sick, and some of the crazy conspiracy theories are starting to make sense to him.
I liked it quite a bit. It was different (in the overall marketplace sense; it fits in well with Cronenber’s oeuvre) and weird and distinctive.
Sexual fetishism plays a role here. Cronenberg has never shied away from highly charged eroticism which is both rather explicit and absolutely necessary to the plot. (A History of Violence‘s extended mutual oral sex scene between Mortensen and Bello, e.g.) Here we discover that Saul is good at…well, whatever passes for sex in this weird future, but not at the old-fashioned kind. And there is an extended scene of Caprice naked which serves to remind one (in case one had forgotten since The French Dispatch) that Ms. Seydoux looks awfully good naked. Anyone else, you might think it’s cheap bait, but it’s so critical and perfect to have the contrast between the oddly mutated Saul—an uncomfortable future—and the practically perfect Caprice.
The only weakness, to my mind, was the unwillingness to crank it up a little bit. The ending seemed so obvious and inevitable to me—which is in itself a kind of achievement when you’re dealing with something this surreal—that I thought Saul could have used a bit more drama to goose his arc. But even this, I know, is deliberate, and I wonder if it’s just to keep everything as grounded as possible under the circumstances.
Anyway, I’d recommend it up there with Existenz, e.g. I think it makes its point and is interesting and disturbing. The Boy also liked it though he didn’t have a strong a positive reaction as I did.