He’s one of the most distinctive personalities directing movies today. His name evokes a clinical and penetrating intelligence, a fascination with the body, with sex and violence, that is both visceral and cerebral, and a style that is at once lucid and often surreal. But if we think we have a handle on who David Cronenberg is, it’s worth looking at just how varied his work has been.
Over his long career, he has made car movies (Fast Company), stage adaptations (M Butterfly; A Dangerous Method); gangster movies (Eastern Promises; A History of Violence); controversial versions of transgressive literature (Naked Lunch; Crash) and of course lots of horror films (Shivers; Scanners; The Brood; The Fly; Dead Ringers).
Naturally some things fall outside his ambit too. As far as we know he’s never toyed with musicals or rom-coms, but one point he was attached to Total Recall (the original version), and according to various sources he was offered but turned down the chance to make Return of the Jedi, Top Gun and Robocop. In an alternate reality 80s cinema looked really different!
But let’s stick with the reality we know. Which scenes spell Cronenberg to you?
Some images are impossible to forget: the venereal slug invading a woman’s bath in Shivers… A head exploding in Scanners… Samantha Eggar licking off her bloody spawn and Oliver Reed shooting demonic children at the climax of The Brood, easily one of the most grotesque sequences I’ve ever seen.
You could come up with similar spectacular gross-out moments in The Fly and Dead Ringers too – and make no mistake, Cronenberg’s willingness to go for the extreme image, his refusal to pull his punches and desire to disturb and provoke, these are all key attributes. But for myself, looking at The Fly, I’d prefer to highlight one of the earlier scenes, perhaps when Jeff Goldblum’s manic, super-energized Seth Brundle first demonstrates his teleportation device to Geena Davis, who flirtatiously peels off a stocking to help. There’s such crackling chemistry between them, they’re one of the few really great couples in Cronenberg’s work. (Here’s one more that comes to mind: Jeremy Irons’ French diplomat and John Lone’s Chinese opera star in M Butterfly – but that’s another story).
In Dead Ringers, well, there’s not much to beat the moment when one half of the Mantle twins unveils his patented gynecological instruments for mutant women… Ugh! Aside from all that twisted metal, those red surgical gowns set off all kinds of danger signals. (“I look like a Beverly Hills gynaecologist,” Cronenberg once admitted.)
From another favourite early Cronenberg, Videodrome, I’d pick the scene when James Woods is seduced by his pulsating TV set, finally disappearing into Debbie Harry’s cathode lips. That in turn reminds me of eXistenZ, and the sexual thrill Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh get from jacking in to their knobbly, biologically engineered game pod, one of the director’s wittiest inventions.
I’m going to steer clear of Crash, except to say that I’ve been much more assiduous about getting my car washed ever since I saw it.
More recently, the knife fight in the sauna in Eastern Promises is worthy of Hitchcock in its audacity – and the scene in the same film where Viggo Mortensen strips to reveal his tattoos is equally striking for its matter-of-fact male nudity and insight into the codes of the Russian mafia.
Mortensen’s also great in A History of Violence. I guess for most of us the most memorable scene in that one has to be the pivotal act of heroism at the end of Act I, when Mortensen’s Tom Stall impetuously reveals his true talents – or maybe the hostile sex on the stairs between Edie Stall (Maria Bello) and the stranger she thought was her husband. But Ed Harris is also an outstanding presence in that film, and the instant familiarity with which this one-eyed gangster recognizes and menaces his former partner is itself a masterclass in acting. (No wonder Harris cast Mortensen as his buddy when he made his western Appaloosa shortly afterwards, they are dynamite together.)
What else? It’s hard to ignore the giant roach who becomes Peter Weller’s companion in Naked Lunch, certainly one of the best films about writing. And we can’t ignore the extraordinary Spider: Ralph Fiennes caught in the webs of his own psyche.
Does Cosmopolis present further candidates for this imaginary showreel? For all that most of the movie takes place inside a limousine, I’d like to nominate the scene where Robert Pattinson chats up a subordinate while having a prostrate exam. Is there another filmmaker anywhere who could persuade Hollywood’s latest heartthrob to pull such a stunt, and not only that, produce a scene that’s simultaneously absurd, funny, sexy and profound?