Retrospective: The Films Of David Cronenberg

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by The Playlist Staff
November 22, 2011 11:50 AM
11 Comments
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"M. Butterfly" (1993)
With Cronenberg’s controlled and conventional period piece “A Dangerous Method” about to hit theaters, now’s the perfect opportunity to discuss “M. Butterfly,” a film not unlike ‘Method’ in form and execution. Set in 1960s China, where a French diplomat (played by Jeremy Irons) falls in love with an opera singer, “M. Butterfly,” is essentially a straightforward romantic drama, and as the follow-up picture to “Naked Lunch” (and/or just compared to his body-horror-filled oeuvre) it is perhaps one of the strangest films he’s ever made, considering how “normal” it is. Of course there’s a major twist in the plot that gives it lots of sexually transgressive overtones that you won’t find in your average drama, but in approach it is simple, unvarnished and mostly unweird -- in a way it must have been a brave move for the filmmaker at the time. Unfortunately time hasn’t been kind to the film, and it wasn't exactly beloved on first release. John Lone can be spotted a mile away, the political subtext of the picture is lukewarm, and while Irons’ longing, sexual repression and unrequited desire act isn’t as overwrought as it in Louis Malle's lust drama "Damages," it is, at times, a picture that's hard to take seriously. Also, all British actors playing Frenchmen? An unfortunate choice, but we suppose one indicative of North American-made period pieces from the ‘90s. Cronenberg's tragic portrait of doomed love, betrayal and forbidden desire, is a decidely restrained left turn and in that sense should be admired -- there’s nothing worse than a director who never changes (see Tim Burton...). But while the picture attempts to convey a desperate passion that defies social norms and good judgement alike (Irons' character ultimately loses everything because of his indiscretions), it never quite hits the moving mark. And, unleavened by the usual Cronenbergian flashes of deliberate humor, dark or otherwise, it even comes across as unintentionally amusing at times. [C]

"Crash" (1996)
 Was ever a novelist more perfectly paired with a director than JG Ballard with David Cronenberg? It's hard to imagine anyone else could have approached the author's demented 1973 story of car crash fetishism and creepy celebrity worship, and actually taken it further, turning it into a chilling portrayal of premillenial angst as manifested in an eroticized technophilia. But Cronenberg's instinct for this material is innate, and he makes out of this 'only from Ballard' story an unmistakably Cronenberg film. Reviled and banned in some territories on release, with its graphic depictions of violence and sex, in particular the bit where... how to put this delicately... where James Spader fucks Rosanna Arquette's leg wound, "Crash" is certainly not for everyone (and we can't but smile at the thought of some great-aunt renting the DVD when they wanted the trite Best Picture winner of the same name -- it has to have happened, right?). But for fans of both Cronenberg and Ballard, and really anyone with an adult interest in what our ever-increasing obsession with technology might be doing to our relationships and to our psyches (to our souls, perhaps), it is vital, riveting filmmaking. Holly Hunter and Elias Koteas, especially, give great turns and Spader is perfect as another of Cronenberg's cold, creepy protagonists (see Woods, Irons, Weller, and more latterly, Mortensen). But this is a film of ideas, some ugly, some profound, all disquieting, and the film pulsates with such perverse intelligence that those ideas don't so much stay with you, as chase you out of the theater, across the parking lot...and into your car, which may not seem quite the same machine it was a couple of hours before. [A]

"eXistenZ" (1999)
The tail-end of the 1990s was rammed full of fin-de-siècle genre pictures dealing with the apparently synthetic nature of our existence. They ranged from the sublime ("Dark City") to the ones of variable quality starring Keanu Reeves ("The Matrix," "Johnny Mnemonic"), so it's easy to dismiss this effort from Cronenberg as lightweight pootling, maybe in the vein of farces like “The Lawnmower Man,” before his more straightforwardly ‘serious’ run with Viggo Mortensen was to begin in earnest. But “eXistenZ,” though undeniably flawed, is a delirious, prophetic romp, foreshadowing the human propensity to be enlivened and/or enervated by the apparent blanket atomization wrought by the internet - it's “Videodrome” for the “Call of Duty” generation. It’s also run through with a disarming self-reflexive streak: one of the characters triumphantly bellows “Death to realism!” before flambéing a videogame console made from mutated amphibians, while Willem Dafoe is challenged with “Don’t you ever go to the fucking movies?” before having his throat blasted out with a cattle-gun. Jennifer Jason Leigh gives a rare – and welcome - leading role as “game-pod goddess” Allegra Geller who must enter into her own game, eXistenZ, to prevent its “meta-flesh” from becoming contaminated, with only a deliberately hammy and simpering Jude Law, playing a green marketing trainee with a phobia of having his body “penetrated surgically,” for company. With a production design boasting a "hamster factor" only a touch shy of Terry Gilliam’s famous fastidiousness (fast food packaging comes from a joint called “Perky Pat’s”) the film wears its age surprisingly well.  [B+]

"Spider" (2002)
An outlier in the Cronenberg oeuvre, "Spider" was neither a critical darling (despite Amy Taubin's frequent raves) nor an esoteric audience favorite. Nearly a decade after its release, it resides in a mostly forgotten gray area, a rarity for a director who elicits such passionate loyalty from his fans. It's a shame, too, because "Spider" is good. Like, really good. Predating Ralph Fiennes' recent career renaissance, he plays a man recently released from a mental institution who glides through life without speaking, haunted by the past. It's been described by critics as a detective film where the investigator, perpetrator and victim are all inside the head of the same person, and Cronenberg, with frequent collaborators composer Howard Shore and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, creates an atmosphere rich with dread and psychological unease. Reality and fantasy, past and present (Miranda Richardson and Gabriel Byrne appear as Fiennes' parents), toggle back and forth and end up blurring together in one of the director's most disturbingly real-world chillers. While it doesn't sit altogether comfortably in any of the categories Cronenberg spans, it is more than simply a marker between his last phase and his newest: as a transitional film between the old-favorite body horror concerns of "eXistenZ," and the dawning of the new more accessible, Viggo-led chapter, it's ripe to be rediscovered by adventurous viewers. [B+]

"A History Of Violence" (2005)
Considered, if not a return to form for Cronenberg, then the discovery of an entirely new form, “A History of Violence” is his first teaming with Viggo Mortenson, who plays Tom Stall, a small town family man with a hidden past. The film truly simmers with tension, erupting into violence in the second half, but haunted by its possibility all the way through, as family man Tom, married to Edie (Maria Bello) gains an unwanted spotlight as the town hero after he successfully defends his diner from thieves, who he kills with chilling ease. The repercussions of this event raise old ghosts from the grave of the past, (Ed Harris and an Oscar-nominated William Hurt are terrific in supporting roles as Tom's nemesis and brother, respectively). Josh Olson’s screenplay really plays up the B-movie, gritty pulp aspect Cronenberg is going for, but this is Mortensen's show: suggesting so much going on beneath a frozen surface, he makes even silences feel thunderous. Before this, Cronenberg was most famous for his science-fiction/horror flicks, but here he, like his protagonist, turns away from the excesses of his past, channeling his interests instead into a taut, yet resolutely real-world story. As a psychological, sometimes melodramatic investigation of the effect on violence on its victims, its perpetrators and those who, despite trying to run from it, find it their natural state, it is a fantastically controlled and compelling performance piece. And if the anticlimactic ending may leave us just a trifle unfulfilled, it's a minor quibble: as a signal of a new direction for the filmmaker, it is remarkably assured and complete. [A-]
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11 Comments

  • Bill Reynolds | March 16, 2014 1:20 AMReply

    Apparently, whoever wrote about eXistenZ is unfamiliar with Philip K. Dick since Perky Pat's is a direct reference to both a PKD short story and elements of a subsequent novel.

  • Viggo Davids | June 20, 2013 1:50 PMReply

    Seriously?....did u find issue with the ending of 'A History of Violence' disappointing?....It was full of fireworks!....2nd best from cronenberg after Dead Ringers

  • Carry | March 15, 2013 7:27 PMReply

    Cosmopolis

  • Fred | November 22, 2011 9:58 PMReply

    Thanks for a great, spot-on retrospective and one that happily doesn't undervalue his wonderful earlier features.

  • Erik McClanahan | November 22, 2011 9:51 PMReply

    Echo chamber for the ending to History. So great. Chris, I'm with you on Spider, but no love for Eastern Promises? I wasn't crazy about it the first viewing, but the second one proved more satisfying for me, especially since I knew where the plot was going, I could focus on and appreciate everything else that works so well in the film. Its ending is also really strong. And re watching Videodrome recently, I'd say it's one of my favorites now, easily nestled in my top 10 of all time.

  • Christopher Bell | November 22, 2011 6:00 PMReply

    I too loved the ending of "History"... not a fan of "Eastern" or "Spider," though.

  • Christopher Bell | November 22, 2011 6:00 PMReply

    I too loved the ending of "History"... not a fan of "Eastern" or "Spider," though.

  • Justin | November 22, 2011 1:35 PMReply

    Continuing the love for the coda of A History of Violence. Sure, the article credits the "so much going on beneath a frozen surface" but the greatness is in the ambiguity of that look between Mortgensen and Bello concerning what man Tom/Joey is anymore. Unmentioned is the fact that Eastern Promises has the exact same ending only the 'good'/'bad' reveal is reversed but maintains the same ambiguity.

  • zatopek | November 22, 2011 1:34 PMReply

    The ending of A History of Violence is perfect.

  • rotch | November 22, 2011 1:00 PMReply

    Completely with Styles on this one. Naked Lunch is a major work. And the only film of his that can be labeled a comedy... of sorts.

    As for the anticlimactic ending of A History of Violence, I find it funny that you mentioned it. I read the graphic novel before watching the film, and it has a really gory, Cronenbergian ending. So the fact that he and screenwriter Olson decided to tone it down came as a pleasant surprise. Love that coda at the dinner table.

    Also worth mentioning, his short film Camera. Hands down his most humane, touching work and one of my favorite short films of all time.

  • Styles | November 22, 2011 12:51 PMReply

    I cracked up at this line in your B- review of Naked Lunch, "Shame, then, that it never comes together into anything like coherence: the director didn't make his name with easy watches, but this is near impenetrable. "

    Uh...the tagline of the film is "Exterminate All Rational Thought." Naked Lunch is one of his best works.

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