In 1996, shortly after his film Crash premiered at the Festival de Cannes to outrage and acclaim in equal numbers, David Cronenberg appeared at the National Film Theatre in London for a public conversation with J.G. Ballard, the author of the novel he had adapted for the screen. Late in the discussion, Cronenberg made a revealing aside about his perception of the characters in this film about a group of people so enthralled by automobile accidents that sex and death seem to merge in their pursuit of ever-more grotesque ways of combining bodies and twisting metal: ‘[They] are moving beyond sexuality, beyond sex, beyond gender, to some other thing, which they don’t totally achieve by the end of the movie but that seems to be where they’re going. That’s part of their experiment, that’s part of their escape and their freedom.’ Watching a recording of this conversation during the lockdown imposed by a global pandemic, I was not only stunned to hear the Canadian filmmaker describe his characters as explorers of their freedom, but genuinely moved. Yet this disclosure of a radically non-judgmental approach to behaviours most would describe as reckless and many as depraved should not have come as a surprise, given that Cronenberg’s boundless appetite for experiment has long been matched by a willingness to conduct his experiments without imposing conclusions.
Naturally, Cronenberg’s offhand statement serves not only as an encapsulation of Crash but of principles central to a body of work teeming with non-erotic sex, eroticism outside the realm of identified sex acts, experiments with the limits of the human body, and visceral entwinements of flesh and technology. Arriving over twenty years into Cronenberg’s career as a commercial filmmaker, Crash remains the most extreme iteration of an approach to cinema in which freedom is shared equally between filmmaker, audience and fictional characters. The filmmaker’s freedom is not only to let his imagination loose, but to defy the conventions of mainstream narrative cinema in order to examine from every aspect the behaviour of characters who are themselves free. The artist’s freedom does not tax the viewer’s nervous system with goofy camera angles or jarring edits – on the contrary, Cronenberg’s style is often so dispassionate as to evade description. But for many viewers, the way Cronenberg subverts narrative expectations may be more upsetting than an untoward strobe effect.
Crash begins with three sex scenes in a row, which would be standard in a porno movie but is unusual to the point of being unsettling when the scenes are clearly not designed to titillate, as is the case here. While there is an evolution in the characters’ behaviour over the course of the film, Crash’s overall structure is grounded in repetition, creating an impression of looping flatness visually embodied by periodic lateral tracking shots that cross empty spaces to reveal a couple having sex, often in a car. This unhurried manner of coming upon an act of sexual intercourse already underway feels more inquisitive than sensational or voyeuristic: what do we have here? What combination of people and in what position? James Spader’s performance as Ballard, a filmmaker who begins to dabble in the sexual allure of automobile accidents after a traumatic crash of his own, displays an analogous impassive openness. Whether Ballard is witnessing a fetishistic recreation of a lethal accident or his wife being roughly fucked by their new friend Vaughan, Cronenberg includes non-reactive reaction shots of his face looking interested but unmoved. Freedom is not passion. Meanwhile, the audience is free to draw their own conclusions from material that will elicit a reaction from most viewers – Gabrielle, the car crash survivor played by Rosanna Arquette, using a gaping scar on her leg as a sexual orifice, for instance – but is not inflected by the filmmaker in such a way as to impose a perspective. Perhaps some people hated Crash because the film did not tell them how to feel about acts they assumed they should find repulsive but instead found exciting, like two men having sex or a heterosexual couple pushing the probable outcome of their sexual exploration towards death.
Ambiguity has been at the heart of Cronenberg’s work from the beginning, notably in regards to sex. His first commercial feature Shivers (1975) tracks the catastrophic effects of a man-made parasite that turns the inhabitants of a deluxe residential tower near Montreal into aggressively libidinous zombies. But are the effects really so catastrophic? Once most of the isolated tower’s population has been infected, questions of consent are no longer relevant. The action moves into a swimming pool, allowing potential latecomers to the movie to mistake what is happening on-screen for a utopian version of the Playboy Mansion: people of all ages and many body types are getting it on in the water and not a single young woman is being demeaned by wearing a bunny outfit. The film’s last scene famously features the sex zombies getting into cars and heading for Montreal, which in a more conventional horror movie would be a chilling signal that the zombies are coming for all of humanity – and that a sequel is a distinct possibility. But as Cronenberg himself has pointed out, the people in the cars look glamorous and happy as they drive out in search of more partners. It’s up to the audience to decide whether they’d rather be like the Shivers protagonist, a strait-laced doctor who constantly turns down his girlfriend’s advances, or a fun-loving sex zombie.
What gets complicated here, of course, is the question of free will. Even the most positive interpretation of Shivers must recognise that its characters start having a good time once they no longer have much choice in the matter. In Cronenberg’s work, this central tension between freedom and control is rooted in the body, both through relatively quotidian metaphors like drug addiction (Dead Ringers, 1988 and Naked Lunch, 1991) and more outlandish phenomena in which gruesome bodily changes simultaneously express the loss of individual agency and the dawn of new possibilities. In The Fly (1986), the scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) succeeds in transcending the limits of time and space by teleporting himself. Unfortunately, the teleporting process also fuses Brundle’s body with that of an errant fly, turning Brundle into an oozing hybrid that makes you thankful smell isn’t part of the cinema experience. While Brundle’s gradual physical degeneration is probably one of the most potent achievements of pre-CGI special effects, the real horror may be in watching the numerous foibles and desires that made a unique human being give way to the new creature’s instincts. Surprisingly, it wouldn’t be such a stretch to describe Brundle’s fusion with a fly in the same terms as the brilliant young psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) uses to define the sex act as both a creative and destructive force in A Dangerous Method (2011), Cronenberg’s film about the falling out between Freud and Jung: ‘the destruction of two individualities through sex can produce a new being.’ Brundle’s exploration has resulted in the loss of his identity and that of an innocent housefly, but a new identity will emerge. And while no one would argue that The Fly is not a tragedy, it would be a mistake to see it as a cautionary tale about an overreaching scientific endeavour. Accidents happen.
If they didn’t, we wouldn’t have Cronenberg’s exhilarating and terrifying early films, in which characters fall roughly into two categories: the visionary seekers experimenting with bodies, psyches and pharmaceuticals, and the victims who must live with the consequences of their scientific mishaps. In Rabid (1977), a woman develops a penis-like excrescence in her armpit following an untested skin graft and becomes patient zero of a particularly virulent form of rabies. In The Brood (1979), a new form of intensive role play therapy leads a woman to materialise her anger in the form of murderous children who are hatched from a glistening external placenta she tears open with her teeth. In Scanners (1981), an experimental pregnancy drug causes dozens of babies to be born with debilitating telepathic powers that, in the worst of cases, can make their heads explode.
None of this sounds very fun for the participants, but as can be surmised from these misadventures’ sexual underpinnings, the films are a tonic to those of us in the audience who want to see fantasy made flesh. Not fantasy as a stimulant to arousal, of course, but as the unrestrained wandering of a mind let loose to identify carnal potential where it may not be expected. While the depiction of sexual intercourse in Cronenberg’s films is often not designed to be sexy, the films are rare in the way they acknowledge the truly unbounded nature of the sexual imagination. Cronenberg eroticises the world by transforming the body and making the inanimate flesh, producing a cinema of new orifices and pulsating, lubricated machines. In Videodrome (1983), television executive Max Renn (James Woods) develops what appears to be a vagina on his abdomen and another man penetrates that vagina with a throbbing videotape. In Naked Lunch (1991), a talking typewriter begs to have powder rubbed on its puckered anus. In eXistenZ (1999), produced at the dawn of an era in which bodies would become ever less engaged in lives increasingly lived through screens, Cronenberg manages to transform the physically isolated experience of video game playing into a new form of eroticised connection by imagining organ-shaped game controllers that join players to each other through anus-like openings in their spines. Unlike many speculative artists of his generation, Cronenberg does not focus on technologising humans, but on humanising technology, including through a sensualisation of devices that tracks a real-world shift in human desires made most explicit in his aptly titled novel Consumed (2014). Always open-minded, Cronenberg is nothing if not open to new ways of fucking.
This uninhibited approach to identifying the erotic nature of things not defined as sexual has proved controversial when it comes to violence, notably in Videodrome, where Max Renn discovers a pirate TV signal broadcasting torture videos buzzing with an undeniable sexual charge. The excitement generated by the BDSM angle of whips and chains is quickly surpassed by the fact that the videos appear to be snuff films – i.e., films in which the act of murder is not simulated. Snuff is as far from a Cronenberg film as it gets, in that its fantasy is restricted to the narrow confines of what is allegedly real: there is no experiment here, since the outcome is always the same. But the critical question of what is real, which defines what qualifies as snuff, is one that runs through Cronenberg’s wildest films, haunting characters and spectators alike until it is superseded by the larger question of whether there even is such a thing as reality. It follows that the final frontier in a Cronenberg character’s quest for freedom is the attempt to control or transform his or her reality. The evolution of this struggle can be traced from Videodrome, in which Max Renn combats hallucination by committing murder and, eventually, suicide, through Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly (1993) and eXistenZ to Spider (2002), in which the titular schizophrenic (played by Ralph Fiennes) wanders between the present day and his memories of childhood events that may or may not have happened as he remembers them. As an experiment in total subjectivity, Spider finds Cronenberg doubling down on his commitment to dismissing traditional narrative by staging a story in which the narrator is so unreliable that the audience never learns what really happened, only how the perception of events has affected the person who thinks they happened. The film ends with Spider being returned to an insane asylum, a particularly unenviable fate in Cronenberg’s expressionistically bleak vision of a desolate working-class England, but in a sense this damaged man has won the battle to inhabit a reality of his own making.
Naked Lunch and M. Butterfly occupy opposite ends of the Cronenberg spectrum, with the starkly personal reinvention of William S. Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch (1959) reaching extremes of hallucinatory fantasy while the adaptation of David Henry Hwang’s Broadway play M. Butterfly (1988) does not patently stray from the norms of the well-told costume drama. Yet the protagonists of both films are men who bend reality to accommodate their discomfort with homosexual desire. Early in Naked Lunch, Bill Lee (Peter Weller) tells a police investigator that he has ‘gone straight’: he has a wife and a job as a bug exterminator. It soon becomes clear that Lee is hiding from two things as inextricably linked as they are inescapable: his urge to write and his desire for men. A relapse into drug addiction allows him to indulge these needs while experiencing them in a way that is more tolerable to his sense of self. Unlike Spider, where the move to subjectivity is absolute, Cronenberg shifts between Bill Lee’s perception of the world, in which talking typewriters give him orders and the sight of two men having sex resembles an unholy mix of crucifixion and cannibalism, and an objective reality in which a typewriter is a typewriter and the sounds made by the participants in the above-mentioned sex act suggest they’re both having a great time. The fact that the fantasy made flesh by Lee’s hallucinations is far more horrifying than anything he would likely experience by having gay sex only speaks to the maddening nature of sexual repression. In M. Butterfly, the staid French diplomat René Gallimard (Jeremy Irons) falls desperately in love with a singer at the Chinese Opera and sacrifices his career to be with her. But as is readily apparent to everyone but Gallimard, the person he loves is a man dressed as a woman. And while Cronenberg gives us the most utilitarian sex scene in his filmography to reveal how Gallimard might not immediately be aware of his lover’s biological gender, it is clear that the fallen diplomat has to call on the bottomless power of denial to maintain the illusion over two decades and achieve his sad triumph over reality.
While Cronenberg’s credentials as a champion of the non-normative are unimpeachable, he has not ignored more ordinary approaches to coupling, notably in The Dead Zone (1983), The Fly and Dead Ringers (1988), a series of films that brought him to mainstream attention and use heterosexual romance as a medium to explore his fundamental theme of identity. Yet it remains surprising to note that with the exception of the modestly athletic sex scene depicting Seth and his girlfriend Veronica’s first night together in The Fly, the memory of which is soon buried by physical transformations so hideous as to render the mere idea of sexual congress stomach-turning, Cronenberg did not get around to producing a fully realised representation of more or less vanilla straight sex until his fifteenth feature, A History of Violence (2005). Early in that film, middle-aged Edie Stall (Maria Bello) surprises her husband Tom (Viggo Mortensen) by coming into their bedroom in the uniform she wore as a cheerleader, affecting teen innocence as Tom ogles a version of his wife he has clearly never seen before. Cronenberg approaches the scene with the coolheaded inquisitiveness he applies to the more outré material in his earlier films, precisely chronicling the stages of this marital encounter from role play to oral sex and from passionate intercourse to loving pillow talk. Whereas many mainstream sex scenes suddenly shift out of the movie’s narrative, aesthetic and psychological continuum to deliver a generic vision of hotness, this first encounter between Tom and Edie Stall expands on what we’ve already seen to confirm that the couple still has a powerful erotic and emotional connection and to inconspicuously convey critical information like the fact that they did not share the same small-town upbringing. The role play is a deft piece of thematic priming, setting the stage for a tale of shifting identities unmistakably grounded in American values: what could be more all-American than lusting for the cheerleader? Paradoxically, this most banal of encounters may be the sexually charged moment I find the most uncomfortable in all of Cronenberg’s work. The scene is so specific in how it captures a relatable intimacy that watching it makes me feel not only like an intruder, but one who is spying on his own parents.
I’m glad to report I have no such feelings of familiarity when we next see Edie and Tom have sex, after it has been revealed that Tom used to be Joey Cusack, a violent thug from Philadelphia whose proficiency at killing has been demonstrated before Edie’s eyes. Preliminaries, play, and love are long gone as the couple fuck on a staircase, both partners looking as if they were simultaneously raping and being raped. It is an ugly scene for a desperate situation, expressing Edie’s rage and confirming the brutal disappearance of the tender relationship that existed earlier. Yet for all its mournful, angry substance, the scene also recognises that Edie, who initiates the encounter, is powerfully attracted to the violent stranger to whom she remains married – and that vanilla sex can be as menacingly erotic as a car crash.
Though it carries over the bold visual language and pulpy action of the graphic novel from which it is adapted, A History of Violence clearly does not sacrifice Cronenberg’s attachment to ambiguity. When Edie and her children make room for the disgraced patriarch Tom to join them at the dinner table after he returns from a last bloodbath in Philadelphia, one does not have to be particularly attuned to questions of social justice to look at this uneasily happy ending in light of this country’s history of genocide and slavery and the moral compromises required to maintain the facade of the idealised American nuclear family.
A History of Violence was followed by two films that shared its ostensible adherence to genre convention, the Russian mob thriller Eastern Promises (2007) and A Dangerous Method, in which Cronenberg disguises a series of intellectual arguments about psychoanalysis as a prestige period drama with a hint of naughty sex, providing a theoretical summing up of much of his earlier work through discussions of the dangers of repression and the creative and destructive potential of the sex act. His most recent films, Cosmopolis (2012) and Maps to the Stars (2014), move away from recognised genres to portray a contemporary landscape of decadent global capitalism and acridly cynical Hollywood fame-chasing. Cronenberg is clearly still curious about the world and its mutations, but his characters’ search appears to be hitting a wall. In Cosmopolis, the young billionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) cruises around an unravelling New York in a gargantuan stretch limo, freed by his obscene wealth to experiment to his heart’s content. Yet when his desires are not simply preposterous – he wants to buy the Rothko Chapel – they hint at the dangers of unlimited possibility. Bored by a sexual encounter with one of his bodyguards, his second partner of the day, Eric asks her to shoot him with her Taser. Cronenberg cuts away before we can see if she complies, but the spiral has begun: before long, Eric abruptly shoots and kills another guard with an affectless gesture that might at best express a mild curiosity. Few of Cronenberg’s earlier protagonists have entered this realm of numbness. Some have lost their lives or done damage to others in pursuit of their fantasy, but none have intentionally killed someone just because they could. While the icy composure displayed by Ballard and his friends in Crash expresses an uncommon openness, Eric Packer’s calm is the sign of a man shutting down. The situation is not much more cheerful in Maps to the Stars, a film in which the darkest strands of romanticism are exposed to the blinding light of fame and fortune. People want things in Cronenberg’s Hollywood – parts in movies, big paydays, other people’s boyfriends – but the sense of exploration is gone. The sex is mechanical and the movies are remakes. Actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) is desperate to play the part that made her dead mother famous, while her young assistant Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska) has returned to LA to expose her parents as an incestuous couple and rescue her little brother Benjie (Evan Bird). The characters are so haunted by the past that for the first time in Cronenberg’s long career, their hallucinations are not alternate realities grounded in fantasy or delusion but the manifestation of guilt and regret brought by ghosts. In this airless context, Agatha and Benjie’s choice to die together nearly plays like a happy ending. As they lie under the night sky preparing to swallow their pills, the last word Agatha sends up to the stars is the title of the Paul Éluard poem quoted throughout the film: ‘Liberty.’