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Director Spotlight: David Cronenberg (Part 2)

This post serves as the second part of Noah's David Cronenberg career retrospective. For recaps of the director's pre-1986 films, check out part 1.

The Second Wave: The Fly (1986) & Dead Ringers (1988)

This portion of Cronenberg’s career is viewed by many as his very best, and with good reason. These two movies are both highly acclaimed and demonstrate his best qualities in spades. By this point, David had graduated from B-horror and low-grade special effects into the best that the industry had to offer. These movies are conceived thoughtfully, paced perfectly, and executed carefully.

The Fly (1986)

The Fly is the film most quickly associated with Cronenberg, and it’s easy to see why. Despite, and possibly exactly because of, the plot’s simplicity, (the main character accidentally teleports himself with a fly, they fuse, and he slowly turns into the “Brundle-fly”) the movie is able to focus keenly on the human condition. We watch Seth Brundle’s (Jeff Goldblum) newfound ability dissolve to disability in front of our eyes, and, even more tragically, the eyes of his love, journalist Ronnie Quaife (Geena Davis). Whether Brundle’s metamorphosis represents disease or aging or nothing profound at all, it serves as a vessel for one of the most deeply romantic and sympathetic stories not only in horror, but in all of film.

Brundle and Quaife are among the most fleshed-out characters in Cronenberg’s oeuvre. There are only three major characters in the movie, so the duo have plenty of room to develop. They share quick wit, curiosity, and easy charm. But their dynamic is piteous: Brundle, cursed by fate; Quaife, doubly cursed by love and repulsion. Their tangible chemistry exceeds most explicitly romantic movies, as observed by fellow BFB writer Jack Siddall in this essay. It’s almost reminiscent of a stage play, aided by the uncharacteristically lavish score, enormous set pieces, and meaty costumes.

The Fly is a story of transformation to an undefinable “other,” yet through this, it manifests a story of deep humanity. Who are we without connection, that which renders us more than the sum of our parts?

Recommended for: all.

Dead Ringers, also revered, finds a more muted approach to Cronenbergian subversion. In this, our focus is the identical twins Elliot and Beverly Mantle, two brilliant gynecologists that often operate as two sides of the same coin. Confident, charismatic Elliot delivers the speeches and beds the patients, passing them on to Bev when he tires of them. But when Beverly falls for one of these women, their tight synchronicity becomes unwound and their lives crumble to chaos.

Dead Ringers (1988)

Elliot and Bev are aware of their own codependency, that without one or the other, their bizarre symbiosis falls to pieces. They cannot even function as people without the other. There is something perverse, almost incestuous, about their relationship, demonstrated by Bev’s nightmare of the two connected at the stomach (Cronenberg’s only real moment of body horror in this otherwise psychologically-minded piece). I have to specially commend Jeremy Irons’ performance in this movie. His effort both in distinguishing the two and melding when appropriate is singularly exquisite. One of the best performances I have seen, perhaps ever. Great movie. Weird tools.

Recommended for: mutant women & identical twins (of course).

Based on a True Story: ​​Naked Lunch (1991) & M. Butterfly (1993)

Naked Lunch (1991)

These two movies have nothing in common other than the influence of real-life events on their conception. Naked Lunch is an adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ novel of the same name and it incorporates key elements of the author’s life. Given that the novel functions as a fictionalization of his time traveling the world, the combination adaptation/character study fits rather cleanly. M. Butterfly, on the other hand, is based on the true story of a French diplomat’s affair with a Chinese opera singer.

You know when you watch a movie and you think “I’ll never watch something this weird again.” Meet Naked Lunch. Exterminator William Lee (Peter Weller) finds that his wife has been stealing his bug powder to get high. When he accidentally ingests some of the powder, a talking beetle gives him a mission: kill his wife. Naked Lunch, the novel, is a series of loosely-connected vignettes primarily drawn from Burroughs’ real-life experiences traveling the world and sampling every drug imaginable. The film reimagines the book as being written by character William Lee, who also represents the real-life author himself.

So what happens in the book, which Lee writes after he successfully (accidentally) completes his mission? Well, there are typewriters that are also talking insects. Secret identities. Gay agents (but not really). And lots and lots of fictional drugs.

I can’t say that this movie is particularly accessible, but it’s entertaining as a surrealist black-comedy bildungsroman. I certainly feel compelled to read the book now.

Recommended for: William Tell & addicts everywhere.

M. Butterfly is an atypical love story, depicting an interpretation of the real-life romance between a French diplomat and a Chinese opera singer in the 1960s. I have to defer discussion of the meatier parts of this movie to my Letterboxd review because they’re hidden by major plot spoilers that I won’t disclose to those who haven’t seen the movie yet.

M. Butterfly (1993)

My spoiler-free review: I found it to be disappointing, like the other Cronenberg movies that could have been shot by anyone. No body horror or thoughtful discussion is to be found, which is remarkable in a story steeped in depth. Political intrigue, gender dysphoria, and sexuality are all underdeveloped in this transgressive reading of their relationship. I see why Cronenberg was drawn to the story, but I’m disappointed with the way he engaged with it.

Recommended for: politicians & other liars.

Gross, One Last Time: Crash (1996) & eXistenZ (1999)

Crash (1996)

The end of the 20th century also saw the end of true Cronenbergian(™) style. Crash and eXistenZ are engaging yarns spun by the mind of the man who made Videodrome. In a way, it’s as if he split the movie in two, Crash exploring the furthest extent of mankind’s kink and arousal, and eXistenZ packing in his commentary on technology, i.e. our relationship with it. This is the last time we see movies that feel distinctly his, and they’re the last two scripts he wrote before Crimes of the Future (with the exception of Cosmopolis, which is… an odd one).

Crash’s fame has long been derived from its status as “the car sex” movie, at least until last year’s Palme d’Or winner, Titane, realized another definition of “car sex.” In this movie, James Ballard (James Spader) and his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) have a lifeless open marriage, at least until James’ surprisingly titillating car wreck. The “accident” leads the Ballards deep into the underground ring of those aroused by crashes.

Crash is intriguing in numerous ways, but I find that those who fixate on the cars themselves are missing the point. Cronenberg is simply interested in the sex – what renders attraction understandable or unimaginable? Fuck it, why not document the wildest fetish conceivable.

It has more sex than any other movie I’ve seen, but Cronenberg approaches with the touch of a researcher: clinical, cold, curious. Crash is incredibly appropriate for a world where the tragedy of the day triggers intense apathy in the populace, where unconscionable depravity stakes claim at the top of pornographic sites’ search bars. Smash cars and then bump uglies, I dare you. It’s to die for.

Recommended for: plexiglass eaters & Francis Ford Coppola.

Essentially, eXistenZ is Cronenberg doing The Matrix, and funnily enough, the two films were released only three weeks apart in 1999. In the near future, video games remain all the rage, but electronic systems have been replaced by “game pods,” organic virtual reality systems that plug directly into “bio-ports” at the base of the spine. When world-renowned game designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is attacked at a focus group for her new game, eXistenZ, by a Realist, a fanatic who fights video game companies for “deforming” reality, security guard and game enthusiast Ted Pikul (Jude Law) takes control of protecting both her life and the game.

eXistenZ (1999)

eXistenZ is very fun, even if the titular game would be absolutely zero fun to play. It’s Cronenberg at his grossest, for absolutely no reason, and for that, it’s effortlessly delightful. I can clearly imagine Cronenberg giggling as he pens the hilariously unnecessary moment where Pikul suddenly rims Geller’s bio-port. Also, Jude Law.

The central message of the movie is a bit on-the-nose (bodies that literally plug into video games… what’s that mean?), but as entertainment, it’s gold.

Recommended for: Luddites & gamers (make up, guys).

I Don’t Have a Clever Title: Spider (2002)

Spider (2002)

In Spider, Dennis Cleg (Ralph Fiennes) is a man struggling with schizophrenia and the trauma of his youth. His release from a mental institution lands him in a halfway home, where he attempts to piece together his shattered psyche as he reconstructs his troubled childhood.

I can’t say that Spider is anything less than a well-done movie, and its portrayal of an unreliable narrator deserves commendation. That’s about all that I have to say about it, though. It’s a perfectly fine (horribly bleak) movie in Cronenberg’s oeuvre, even if it does feel a bit out of place stylistically. Good luck finding a way of watching it, by the way. It’s not legally available for streaming or rental anywhere.

Recommended for: masochists.

Cronenberg Falls in Love: A History of Violence (2005) & Eastern Promises (2007)

A History of Violence (2005)

Romeo & Juliet, Jack & Rose, Bonnie & Clyde… David Cronenberg & Viggo Mortensen. Well, not really, but the two clearly share a great deal of respect for each other, as evidenced by Mortensen’s starring role in Crimes of the Future (2022), his fourth turn in a Cronenberg joint. That began here, with A History of Violence & Eastern Promises, two pretty good gangster action movies that explore violence, and how it makes or breaks a man.

What happens when your husband is a little too skilled at fending off the burglars? A History of Violence shows the fallout after Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) fends off and kills two burglars that come after his small-town Indiana diner. Once his face hits the front page, Carl Fogerty (Ed Harris) of the Irish mob in Philadelphia comes to pay him a visit, accusing Stall of being the long-lost Joey Cusack, responsible for killing several fellow members many years ago.

The extent of what makes a person themselves is an oft pondered question, whether our histories will always define us or if that can be left behind, a whole life fading in the rearview mirror. Are we forgivable? Are we the same as we always were?

The film generally serves as a departure from Cronenberg’s body horror sensibilities, but his very firm sense of the body makes him an interesting director for gangster movies. He’s keen to demonstrate what bullets and knives actually do to the flesh, what it sounds like when a windpipe is broken or a life is extinguished. Think of the Bob Odenkirk vessel Nobody.

A History of Violence doesn’t always quite stick the landing, particularly in some poorly written scenes set at the high school, but it’s solid as a discreetly brutal study of identity. Viggo kills it.

Recommended for: celebrities & the violence-crazed.

Eastern Promises can be easily mistaken as a companion film to its predecessor, given its Viggo presence and similar status as a gangster movie, but it’s not. This movie flips the notion of the last movie (what if a good guy was actually kinda bad) on its head (what if a bad guy was… you’ll see). Also, it’s set in London. Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) is a midwife who delivers the baby of a fourteen-year-old girl who dies in childbirth. When she finds the girl’s diary and has it translated by her Russian uncle, she finds that the girl was raped by mob boss Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen), personal driver and bodyguard for the prince of the mob, Kirill Semyonovich (Vincent Cassel) takes a personal interest in her safety.

Eastern Promises (2007)

This is perhaps the most standard and straightforward narrative in Cronenberg’s filmography, but it’s executed very well. Again, brutal violence is one of his strengths, and this movie has his best fight scene when a very naked Viggo is ambushed at a bathhouse. Your frontal lobe won’t need dissecting after Eastern Promises, but it’s a very well-done gangster film.

Recommended for: diary keepers & fellow Naomi Watts lovers.

You’ve Made It This Far: A Dangerous Method (2011), Cosmopolis (2012) & Maps to the Stars (2014)

A Dangerous Method (2011)

The most recent movies that Cronenberg directed are all adaptations of plays and novels, and the quality is generally pretty mixed. All feel more like the work of the writer than the director, and all are divorced entirely from the rest of the director’s horror roots.

A Dangerous Method is an adaptation of an adaptation from the nonfiction text A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein by John Kerr, and that gives you essentially all you need to know. We follow the interactions between Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen, again) in the years before World War One.

It’s a mostly standard period piece, if a rather kinky one – you learn a lot about Jung and Spielrein’s sexual relationship – and it comes with a lot of the requisite baggage. All three turn out decent performances, and it’s reasonably entertaining, but as with movies like Fast Company and Spider, I can’t really say that it’s more than fine.

Recommended for: psychology majors & history minors.

Cosmopolis, an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s book of the same name, is easily Cronenberg’s most controversial modern work. This surreal film follows 28-year-old billionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) on his agonizingly slow limousine ride across Manhattan. Packer, whose ultimate destination is a haircut that he doesn’t really seem to need, fields a series of brief interactions with employees, friends, and other random people that appear in his limousine as if by magic.

Cosmopolis (2012)

Cosmopolis is bizarre, to say the least. Anyone who can’t stomach needlessly artsy conversations stuffed with deliberately stilted dialogue should definitely avoid it. It’s not a movie to be breezily enjoyed; it’s all in service of some anticapitalist deeper meaning, yet even the exact point is obfuscated at times by the sheer quantity of topics at hand. I enjoyed the movie for its utter absurdity, but it’s not for anyone, not by any means.

Recommended for: comrades with asymmetrical prostates.

Finally, we wind up at Maps to the Stars, a satire that misses all of its marks. Maps follows a couple of different threads in Los Angeles: a washed-up actress desperately hoping for a role in the movie her mother once starred in (Julianne Moore), a former child star navigating his transition to adulthood (Evan Bird), and a young woman trying to make amends to the family that disowned her (Mia Wasikowska).

Maps to the Stars (2014)

I hated this movie. I can’t exactly recommend it in good conscience, even if it has its moments. The direction that it eventually takes is bizarre and perverse, but also unearned. Julianne Moore is basically the only reason that I stuck through it.

Recommended for: Marvel fanboys & classroom bullies.

Looking ahead: Paths to Crimes of the Future (2022)

I hope that you have found something interesting from this piece, preferably a movie or two to watch, though I suppose I’ll settle for enlightenment. If you’re looking for explicit recommendations as to the ones to watch, I have a few listed below.

If you’re new to Cronenberg and want just a taste:

The Fly -> Dead Ringers -> Videodrome

If you want as much grossness as possible:

Videodrome -> Shivers

If you want to see every “Cronenbergian” movie chronologically:

Shivers -> Rabid -> The Brood -> Scanners -> Videodrome -> The Fly -> Dead Ringers -> Naked Lunch -> Crash -> eXistenZ -> Crimes of the Future (2022) (probably)

If you want the highlights:

The Fly -> Videodrome -> Dead Ringers -> Scanners -> Crash -> eXistenZ -> Eastern Promises

If you suck:

Crimes of the Future (1970) -> Fast Company -> Maps to the Stars




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