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David Cronenberg on Body Horror, ‘Titane,’ and ‘Stalinist’ Censorship as ‘Crimes of the Future’ Hits Cannes

Cannes: The director elaborated on the complex themes of his new movie to IndieWire and why he always seems to be ahead of his time.

In this Oct. 2, 2014 photo, filmmaker David Cronenberg poses for a portrait in promotion of his debut novel "Consumed" in New York. (Photo by Dan Hallman/Invision/AP)

David Cronenberg

Dan Hallman/Invision/AP

David Cronenberg makes movies ahead of their time — and he’d like to keep it that way. When a global pandemic broke out, the godfather of body horror didn’t rush to make his own response. 

“I sort of felt I’d done that already with ‘Shivers’ and ‘Rabid,” the filmmaker told IndieWire during an interview at the Cannes Film Festival, while sitting on a hotel balcony at the Cannes Film Festival, referencing movies he made four decades ago. “Of course, the whole ‘body is reality’ thing is very real for me. Things that affect the human body are very basic, primitive and essential.”

“Body is reality” is one of many provocative lines from “Crimes of the Future,” the 79-year-old auteur’s first feature in eight years, which premieres in Cannes this week. Borrowing a title from his unrelated 1970 film and utilizing a screenplay he wrote two decades ago, the movie once again shows the mark of a director so immersed in his exploratory concepts that he demands the audience think through them to keep up. 

Set in a near future in which people can grow new organs in their bodies, “Crimes of the Future” centers on a performance artist couple (Viggo Mortensen and Léa Seydoux) whose work involves the removal of such organs onstage before a live audience, and brings scrutiny from a team of bureaucratic investigators at the National Organ Registry (Don McKellar and Kristen Stewart). Like so much of Cronenberg’s work, the scenario evades precise interpretations even as it amounts to a remarkable meditation on identity. In this case, the focus is the interplay of physicality and technology unique to the 21st century — so it makes sense, of course, that Cronenberg came up with it at the end of the 20th. 

“When I wrote this in 1998, it was very theoretical — unlike now, when everyone’s talking about microplastics in their bloodstream,” the director said, insisting that he hadn’t changed a word of his original draft when production resources finally came together last year. “The human condition is the subject of my filmmaking and all art. Right now, these are things that are intriguing in terms of where people are and how they’re living.” 

There were some contemporary twists to the movie, which includes meme-worthy lines like “surgery is the new sex,” an observation Cronenberg has said was inspired by the amount of surgeries one can watch on YouTube. There’s also recurring POV footage from a “ring-cam” that was shot with an iPhone, which registers as Cronenberg’s acknowledgement of the way personal devices have invaded our way of seeing the world. “It’s meant to be super-modern,” Cronenberg said.

The director previously explored prospects of technological control impacting everyday life with “Videodrome,” and said he wanted to incorporate a similar theme this time. “Crimes of the Future” doesn’t just revel in the interplay of art and technology; it gets inside the humanity at the core of that intersection. “I personally do not have an agenda as a filmmaker, but I’m interested in people who do, because that reveals many things about how they struggle with who they are and who they should be,” he said. “My filmmaking isn’t political in the literal sense.”

Crimes of the Future

“Crimes of the Future”

screenshot/NEON

In a separate interview at Cannes, Seydoux said that she was struck by Cronenberg’s sensitivity. “He’s very romantic, extremely romantic, and it’s not something you would think of him,” she said. “He’s very sentimental and very alive, very young, inside. It’s inspiring. There’s something about him that I felt and it’s great when you admire people and you meet them in reality and they are even better than what you imagined.”

Still, she wasn’t able to get many answers out of the director about the nature of her surgical artist character. “He didn’t like to talk about it,” she said. “But we had very interesting conversations about life and about love.”

Cronenberg delighted in the ambiguity around his work. “Most of my movies are quite open-ended,” he said. “Things aren’t tied up in a nice little bow.”

Though he has speculated in other interviews ahead of Cannes that audiences might walk out of the movie during its opening minutes, he was now radiating a Zen-like energy about the potential reception of his work. “You know, I’m from the ‘60s,” he said, referencing the era when he made his first feature. “I just want to be here now and chill. I never know how people will react.” 

Plus, no matter what happens, he already has a new project in the works that he expects to shoot in Toronto next spring: “The Shrouds,” which imagines a world in which people can witness their dead relatives decaying in real time. The movie has been seeking financing at the Cannes market.

Originally, Cronenberg was paid by Netflix to develop the concept as a series, and said he wrote two episodes before the streaming service backed off. “I think they’re very conservative and for whatever reason, they didn’t go ahead with my project,” he said. “I still thanked them because I wrote a script and I wouldn’t have done that if it hadn’t been for their enthusiasm. “I was interested in a streaming series as an alternative form of cinema, because suddenly you’re making eight or 10 hours of film.”

As for “Crimes of the Future,” Cronenberg said he researched COVID protocols for the production through TV acting gigs he took on over the past year ahead of the shoot. “I wanted to see if it was possible to make a movie with those protocols,” he said. “How awkward does it make things, how much more expensive does it make things, does it affect your acting, your directing, your acting? I saw that it was perfectly possible to do. It was more expensive, it was more awkward, but it was very doable and you got used to it. You got used to wearing the mask.” When it came time for the “Crimes of the Future” shoot in Athens, “among our crew of 150, nobody got COVID, so it worked,” he said.  

In the years since his last effort, 2014’s “Maps to the Stars,” Cronenberg has written a horror novel, produced a VR experience, and acted in both the Shudder series “Slasher” and “Star Trek: Discovery.” But the world has been deprived of his filmmaking during critical moments of societal upheaval, including new sensitives about onscreen representation that he said gave him pause. “A lot of artists are worried about saying the wrong phrase on Twitter or getting canceled,” he said. “It’s kind of Stalinist in a bizarre way. It’s not the same politics but it’s about the results — the inflexibility and the lack of understanding of what art is.” 

It didn’t take much prodding for Cronenberg to offer some specifics. “Of course there are power trips as soon as people feel they have some power through this stuff,” he said. “You take something like the MeToo movement, which is totally legitimate, but obviously it can be politicized, weaponized by people who want to take it to an absurd extreme, and that has happened. So how do you deal with that? I guess that always happens. Something that has value is misused and used as a weapon. It can be for personal vengeance. Right now, there are a lot of people running scared.”

"Crimes of the Future"

“Crimes of the Future”

Cronenberg said he navigated pushback to his own work on the institutional level back in 1979, when the Ontario Censor Board cut scenes out of “The Brood” without his permission (they were later restored). “I’ve had moments where things were forbidden, things were bad, things were taboo,” he said. “I haven’t paid any attention to it in terms of altering my approach.” 

The gap between his last feature and this one has also meant that the filmmaker didn’t join the fray of artists who addressed the Trump years, though the exploding head in “Scanners” was also ahead of its time in terms of capturing the nature of public discourse these days. “I wouldn’t dignified my art with Donald Trump, I have to tell you,” Cronenberg said. “He didn’t deserve it. As a destructive force, he was to ludicrous to me. It was so obvious I can’t believe anyone would vote for him.”

And no matter what his work says about the manipulation of physicality, Cronenberg made one thing clear: He abhorred anti-vaxxers. “When I was a kid, we were all terrified of polio,” he said. “The vaccine was the savior. I just can’t believe the attitude toward vaccines right now. It’s an amazing thing to be able to have a vaccine right now. If you’re refusing a vaccine, I just think you’re a ridiculous person.”

The filmmaker is often asked about the commercial opportunities that have come his way over the years, including “Top Gun” and “Flashdance.” He was adamant that he never seriously entertained these offers. “People ask me about this all the time and there could be some misunderstandings,” he said. “I’m flattered because they’re trying to put a huge enterprise into your hands.” With “Top Gun,” he added, he was put off by one ingredient above all. “I like machines. I like those jets,” he said. “It’s just all about American military stuff and that wasn’t something I would’ve wanted to do.” Asked if he found anything fascistic about the plot, he added: “I would say that might’ve been an issue for me,” he said. “There was a bit of that in there.”

Cronenberg’s thematic consistency has inspired a new generation of filmmakers that includes his own son, Brandon Cronenberg. The younger Cronenberg’s unsettling and imaginative thrillers “Antiviral” and “Possessor” are undeniable spiritual successors to his father’s work, though he has been coy about discussing such comparisons in interviews. 

“I think that’s for obvious reasons,” David said. “But we love each other and talk about it all the time.” As it turns out, both Cronenbergs were shooting new movies produced by U.S. distributor Neon at the same time, and Brandon decided not to rush the completion of his upcoming Alexander Skarsgard effort “Infinity Pool” to make the Cannes deadline to clear the way for his dad. “It was really quite sweet,” David said. “To be shooting at the same time is delicious for a father. I was really very proud.” 

And then there’s Julia Ducournau, the rising star who nabbed the Palme d’Or last year for “Titane,” the Cronenbergian tale of a serial killer woman who has sex with a car. It ended up as the country’s Oscar submission. While Mortensen recently compared the movie unfavorably to Cronenberg’s “Crash,” the director himself — who participated in a conversation with Ducournau in Paris last week — felt differently. “I liked the film a lot,” he said. “She’s got a really strong visual sense. I know she’s said how much of an influence my filmmaking has been, but it’s basically in the sense of unlocking her own sensibility, which is unique. She’s got a really strong visual sense and a sense of the absurd, the extreme. Her films are totally not like my films.” 

Titane

“Titane”

Neon

And then there were the accolades. “I was delighted that she won the Palme, and I thought it was a real breakthrough for the festival,” he said. “More than that, the fact that it was chosen to represent France as the official Oscar selection was pretty bold. That also tends to be a conservative choice. In this case, they went the distance with that.”  

Still, Cronenberg expressed indifference about awards when it came to his own work (he has never been nominated for an Oscar, though “A History of Violence” scored nominations for William Hurt and screenwriter Josh Olson). “I forget which awards I’ve won,” he said, without a hint of irony. “I have to look at my shelf to see what they are. “I’m not being arrogant. It’s the truth. You often know that the awards-givers are doing it more for themselves than for you. They need somebody to be a figurehead for the festival or whatever. It’s a little bit transactional in a way. It’s just not the reason I’m making movies.”

So what is that reason? He answered the question so quickly it was almost like a mantra. “To be an artist, to create, and connect with human beings,” he said. But even as he approached his eighth decade, he wasn’t committed to filmmaking at all costs. “Cinema is not my life,” he said. “I have three kids, four grandchildren. That’s life.”

“Crimes of the Future” premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. Neon will release it in the U.S. on Friday, June 3.

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