David Cronenberg is not some sicko – though everybody seems to want him to be.
Actress/collaborator Kristen Stewart admiringly calls Cronenberg’s films “deviant art.” Critics repeatedly praise the filmmaker’s “gut-twisting” sensibility. And there is an entire online community of fans trading on fevered anticipation of what perverted nightmares the King of Pain might deliver next. Perhaps this sicko-cinema reputation can be traced back to the early ‘70s, when journalist Robert Fulford infamously slammed Cronenberg’s Shivers as “sadistic pornography ... a disgrace to everyone connected with it – including the taxpayers.” Which is possibly the best-worst thing a young Canadian filmmaker could be accused of producing during the country’s tax-shelter boom.
But while Cronenberg’s movies are grossly extreme and/or extremely gross – bodies break and bend, flesh is pulled and peeled – they are not devised by some sadistic psychopath hiding out in his Forest Hill house of horrors. David Cronenberg is an ordinary 79-year-old Toronto artist who walks to the corner store to buy milk and bananas. Or so says David Cronenberg.
“In my personal life I’m pretty bourgeoisie, mainstream. Nobody notices me or cares. I understand what Kristen means, but it’s hard for me to think of myself as a deviant,” the filmmaker says with a laugh. “In terms of the work, it’s all natural stuff. Within the film community, maybe it’s not considered mainstream. But for me, it’s normal. Doing a biopic like A Dangerous Method is more deviant to me than doing Videodrome.”
Cronenberg is back in Toronto this morning after spending a month in France, a good chunk of it at the Cannes Film Festival, where his new movie, Crimes of the Future, made its world premiere. The film, a darkly hilarious noir about a performance artist named Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) who grows new organs inside his body while humanity comes to terms with the mysterious disappearance of pain, was tracked not only by its polarizing first wave of reviews but also by a curious game of film-fest number-crunching. Such as: seven, the length in minutes of the film’s standing ovation. And: 15, the number of walk-outs, presumably from audience members who could not bear to stomach the film’s fascination with stomachs.
As with everything Cronenberg, though, reality is less disgusting. The walkouts were reported from Crimes of the Future’s press screening, which typically has journalists flitting in and out due to competing obligations. During the movie’s actual Cannes premiere inside the Grand Théâtre Lumiére, there was just one walkout: Cronenberg, who had to go to the bathroom. He came back, too.
“The walkout reports are, you know, whatever. I mentioned [before the premiere] that I thought it might happen, so everyone locked onto it,” the director says today, sipping coffee inside the decidedly non-sicko Shangri-La Hotel in downtown Toronto.
“David loves playing into that, it speaks to his quiet confidence,” Scott Speedman, who costars in Crimes as a quasi-antagonist to Mortensen’s character, says in a separate interview. “A lot of the headlines out of this movie are all ‘crazy gore fest.’ But that’s not what I see.”
It isn’t hard to understand the gross-out expectations, whetted by the digital lips of a Film Twitter left insatiable. Crimes of the Future is Cronenberg’s first film in eight years, arriving not long after the filmmaker mused about retiring altogether. Also, in the time since Cronenberg released his 2014 Hollywood satire Maps to the Stars and today, the world has inevitably changed, arguably becoming more unhinged in the process. In our increasingly religious devotion to celebrity, apocalyptic chaos,and the merging of the organic and the synthetic, it is as if the culture has finally caught up to what Cronenberg has been saying in his films all along (in Crimes’ specific case, a very long time ago indeed – the script was first written in the late ‘90s, titled Painkillers).
Add the rise of instant online discourse, allowing an entirely new generation to latch onto the filmmaker’s prophesying, and we’ve become little sickos ourselves.
It is at this point that I quickly, futilely introduce Cronenberg and Mortensen, who is joining his director for today’s round of interviews, to the “Sicko Haha Yes” meme – an old cartoon from the satirical Onion website picturing a sadistic creep, which has over the past few years morphed into extreme-online shorthand for fans of the Cronenbergian shock-cinema canon. Thankfully, neither the director nor his leading man have ever heard of the gag, again confirming that Cronenberg, the Filmmaker, and Cronenberg, the Reputation, exist in entirely separate realities. His work is a product of his, and not our, environment.
“Well, I wouldn’t let this guy into my film. But yes, I have no idea what this is,” Cronenberg says while studying the image on my phone with a wry smile. “I do, though, consider Viggo totally deviant.”
The two continue to gently rib each other, mirroring the pair’s long and fruitful professional relationship. Crimes of the Future marks Cronenberg and Mortensen’s fourth collaboration – fifth, if you count Cronenberg’s cameo in Mortensen’s directorial debut Falling – and it feels like the most symbiotic. As Saul, who practices his internal-organ art with a monk-like devotion, Mortensen more than once seems to channel a lovable imitation of his own director. Given that Saul laments the pain that his work is causing him – an echo of what Cronenberg told me three years earlier, describing filmmaking as an art requiring a willingness to “suffer” – just how much of the director can be found in his new-old creation?
“I’m going to defer to Viggo here,” Cronenberg offers. “He’s said, controversially, that this is my most autobiographical movie. I have no idea what he means by that ...”
“Well, it’s a good headline,” Mortensen picks it up. “Saul is entirely different than David, but there are certain things about his intellectual approach that reminded me of David. There’s also a certain putting oneself out there, physically and emotionally. You also might think Saul is a hard person, uncompromising. But then you get to know him and you realize there’s a tenderness, and a commitment to his art.”
“Also, I tend to cut my stomach open and offer parts of it,” Cronenberg adds.
“That’s obvious,” says Mortensen. “But he doesn’t heal as quickly as Saul.”
In that way, David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future could be read as a metaphor for the challenges of making a David Cronenberg film. The movie contains plenty of talk about the importance of Saul’s “star” power, the expectations of “shock,” and the inevitably of becoming “self-referential.” Then again, Crimes is just as easily understood as a climate-change treatise, with its emphasis on rot and decay. Or it’s a hardboiled noir pivoting on double crosses and secret agendas. Or maybe a romance, with a beautifully squishy love story between Saul and his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux). Or perhaps an organ is just an organ. And as a director, Cronenberg muses, you continue to offer those up to the world until you’re dead.
“How many do I have left? God only knows,” he says. “I do have to keep myself alive. But beyond that, I didn’t think I would be making another movie, that was certainly true.”
Hopefully, Cronenberg’s insides are still sufficient enough to get through his next two projects: The Shrouds, a thriller starring Vincent Cassel (Mortensen’s costar in Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method) set to film next year, and Consumed, a long-gestating adaptation of Cronenberg’s own 2014 novel, which he is aiming to get off the ground with Crimes producer Robert Lantos.
“Each time we work together, it’s been hard to raise the money,” says Mortensen. “On A Dangerous Method, [producer Jeremy Thomas] came halfway through the shoot saying, ‘Good news, we can finish the movie,’ I didn’t realize we only had enough money until then to only finish the week.”
“Part of it is happenstance – you hit the right groove and people are more encouraged,” Cronenberg replies, noting that it took 19 separate entities – government funds, private investors, distributors – to get Crimes financed. “The world economy also affects independent movies. If you have some oligarchs investing in your films, well suddenly that becomes a thing. That’s what brilliant producers like Robert face. It’s not about knowing where the bodies are hidden, but where the money is hidden.”
As for whether Cronenberg is still, like Saul, willing to suffer to make The Shrouds, Consumed and Sicko-Meme-knows-what-else, the director plays the happy victim.
“I seem to be willing to suffer because it’s also fun. Working with Viggo and a whole new world of actors perks you up,” he says. “These things keep you going – and allow the suffering to not hurt quite so much.”
Crimes of the Future opens June 3 in theatres
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