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Cannes Film Festival Legend David Cronenberg on ‘The Shrouds’

Cannes Film Festival Legend David Cronenberg on ‘The Shrouds’

The body, as any fan of David Cronenberg’s cinema knows, will betray you. Canada’s greatest gift to genre film has spent half a century exploring how treacherous the human organism can be. How our frail frames can be infected, mutated or corrupted by outside invasion — see RabidShivers or The Fly — or by internal disruption, be it mental illness (Spider), addiction (Dead RingersNaked Lunch) or destructive desire (Crash). And technology, be it the VHS implants in Videodrome, the virtual reality of eXistenZ or the body enhancements of Crimes of the Future, will not save us, says Cronenberg, from the way of all flesh. 

The body’s final betrayal, of course, is death, the subject of Cronenberg’s new film. The Shrouds, which will premiere May 20 in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, stars Vincent Cassel as Karsh, a businessman overwhelmed with grief at the death of his wife who builds a device — a high-tech shroud — to watch her body decompose in real-time. Directly inspired by Cronenberg’s own grief at the loss of his wife, Carolyn, who died in 2017, the film could be the director’s last work. Or maybe not. Cronenberg has threatened retirement in the past. He said 2014’s Maps to the Stars, another Cannes premiere, would be his last movie before returning to the Croisette with Crimes of the Future two years ago. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter ahead of this year’s festival, the director is firmly uncommitted. “I have no idea right now what I will do next, but I don’t want to say that I won’t make another film. Because I don’t know. I really don’t know.”

What he does know is that there’s something special about the Cronenberg-Cannes connection. The Shrouds will be the director’s seventh film in competition here. Each one has been controversial. Crash, his first Cannes movie in 1996, inspired mass walkouts at its premiere but ended up winning a Special Jury Prize. “Our understanding was that Francis Ford Coppola, who was president of the jury at the time, wasn’t really crazy about the film, [but] he was outvoted,” Cronenberg says. There were more walkouts for Maps to the Stars. “The Cannes audience is not a normal audience,” the director said at the time. 

But the festival’s impact on Cronenberg, and the director’s impact on the festival, are undeniable. Julia Ducournau’s 2021 Palme d’Or winner Titane took direct inspiration from the father of body horror. And Cronenberg’s transition, in the public mind, from a purveyor of shock horror to an art house master, owes a lot to that Cannes seal of approval. The attention that a Cannes competition slot brings, he notes, is also “fantastic publicity” for your film. “Cannes is wonderful because the world comes to Cannes — the cinema world anyways — to see films in competition,” says Cronenberg. “It’s very exciting and it’s a lot of fun, but it can also be terrifying as a filmmaker because you want that spotlight. But then, when it’s on you, it’s pretty scary actually.”

Who would have thought the one thing that could terrify the infamous Baron of Blood, the man Martin Scorsese once called “Dave Deprave,” would be that legendary red carpet? “First of all, you want to make sure you don’t fall going up the red carpet stairs,” Cronenberg warns. “They’re really steep.”

The Shrouds is more than just autobiographical. It’s inspired in part by your late wife, Carolyn Cronenberg. Can you briefly tell us about her life before audiences see a movie about her death? 

I’d rather not do that. It’s just because she was a very private person. She did make a lovely documentary based on A History of Violence that was very well received. She was a film editor at a certain point. We were together for 43 years. So it’s really — I think that’s about as much as I really want to say. 


It’s OK, because this is going to be a subject — because it’s obvious in the film — that there’s a connection. What can I say? It’s a fictionalization of some real emotions, some real people. But basically, despite the fact that there’s some reality, some autobiography involved, none of that makes it a good film. It needs to be a good film. I’m not trying to be evasive because I know this will endlessly come up. But the film has to exist whether people know anything about me, or my wife, or don’t. In fact, talking to you, this is my first interview. So you’re an experiment for me, too. I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to deal with this in Cannes. 

The Shrouds has a grieving Karsh, played by Vincent Cassel, inventing a burial tool to connect with the dead. He’s able to watch his late wife’s body decompose in real time. Did this sci-fi concept come to you quickly or over time during your own grieving journey? 

Certainly, some of the things that are said in the movie were said. For example, I did, when my wife was being buried, want to be in the box with her. I couldn’t imagine not being there. Of course, in the real world, that’s not possible. But is that the first moment of inspiration for the movie? Because there is a way that you can be in the box using technology. So it’s hard for me to say the exact moment when I was feeling an emotion that had nothing to do with cinema became the seed from which the movie grew. It’s hard for me to say exactly. 

Whether the seed for the movie grew quickly or not, The Shrouds has ample body-horror tropes, including eerie fantasy worlds filled with sexual desire and disgust, that has the film on a genre moviemaking terrain you’re comfortable with, no? 

Comfortable, I really wasn’t. But because it’s discussing some very emotional things, of course. Also, I don’t think there’s any fantasy involved in this, frankly. That technology could exist. So, of course, when people see a little summary of the film, they think it’s a horror film, a supernatural film — you’re communicating with the dead. But to me, it’s a very realistic film. It’s not fantastic at all. You could easily make this happen. Now there’s me, but there’s also Karsh. And he is not really me. I’m not a businessman. I don’t own a restaurant. I don’t own a cemetery. So I wouldn’t say it was comfortable. But it’s a philosophical approach to life. To quote from Crimes of the Future, body is reality. I’m an atheist; I don’t believe in an afterlife. So how do I deal with life after death, my own wife’s death? And then the rest is invention. There’s always playfulness when you’re creating a movie. 

In your films, there’s often a change of the human body from one state to another. Is The Shrouds the first time you introduce the transformation of a dead body? 

There’s a lot of killing and death in cinema, but not too much consideration about the aftermath in physical, real bodily terms. And for the person who was murdered, that is their next adventure on Earth. So I thought it was a genuine impulse on my part. I really wanted to know what happened to my wife once she was buried because I was not prepared to be alone. I didn’t think she was prepared to be alone. It’s like the John Donne poem: “The grave’s a fine and private place, But none, I think, do there embrace.” And I was thinking, well, maybe there’s a way that, at least emotionally, you can embrace the dead and use a technology. Now, that immediately might launch someone into thinking this movie is a sci-fi movie. But, as I say, it’s only a small leap. This is sort of a tech invention — it’s hardly sci-fi. You could absolutely create the kinds of tombs and burial shrouds I’m inventing for the movie.

In The Shrouds, there’s no parasite or outside peril to spread disease or stir eroticism, as in Shivers. It’s a fatal illness that has women undergoing amputations but not losing sexual desire. Explain this link between bodily pain and erotic pleasure, which you also explored in Crash

The approach is really a kind of romantic, realistic, emotional approach. You live with someone, you’re married to someone. They are struck by some debilitating disease, a condition. You are living with them, you love them. Let’s say, to make it cinematic, instead of having it be something like a virus, it’s something that requires amputation. And so, suddenly, physically, that body that you have lived with, that person is radically changed, is dramatically changed in a very physical way that is very visible. And then on the sexual level, that is an issue. It’s on that very personal, emotional level of love and romance and sex that the discourse of the film is happening. It’s not a metaphysical consideration. It’s not a philosophical consideration. It’s not a scientific consideration. It’s a relationship movie that involves that kind of violent medical, physical change. And of course, it’s something that if you are with someone for enough years, you’re going to have that happen, if only through aging, if nothing else, the physical changes that come with aging. 

So your movie is less about body horror, the transformation of the body, than the limits of the human body? 

Rather than any cinematic consideration of body horror — which as you know is not a term I’ve ever used myself, but it’s stuck to me — it’s not just horror. It’s the aesthetics. Karsh in the film, in the dream sequences, is saying to his wife, you are still sexually attractive to me. I still want you. You’re still beautiful. I can adjust my aesthetics to whatever your body has become. Because I love you and we have a pact together. So that’s really the level that it comes out from me, and all other considerations are legitimate if somebody wants to interpret it in a more cinematic way or in the context of my other films. But in making this movie, as always, it’s as though I’ve never made another movie. I don’t think about my other movies. So this film has to work on its own, in isolation, or it’s not worth doing. 

Is that a source of frustration, that a film comes from your head, your imagination, but your audience inevitably sees each film in terms of what came before? 

Yes. Yes. And that’s fine. It’s just that, often, critics, journalists or just filmgoers confuse that with my creative process. They think that I must be thinking the same way as they are. And I’m not. That’s really all I’m saying. It’s very simple. I’m not thinking of that. Of course, it comes from my nervous system and from my past and everything else and my understanding of the craft of filmmaking, which you hope becomes ever stronger and more confident. But it really is my meditation on where I am in my life at the moment in some ways, rather than an accumulation of all the other films. So once the film is done, I can of course see it within the realm of all the other films I’ve done. But really, ultimately, this film has to work for a viewer who knows nothing of me or my other films. That would be just icing on the cake. But they have to really relate to the film and find it powerful or interesting or whatever, completely on its own and in isolation. That’s the viewer I’m making the film for, not for someone who’s an aficionado of my filmmaking — though bless all of those who are, of course. 

Talk about the cast for The Shrouds, which includes Vincent Cassel, who appears in most every scene, and Diane Kruger, who has multiple roles. 

I think Vincent said that this was the most dialogue he’s ever had to deliver in one film in his life. Because it’s a talking film. Casting is an interesting process. There are some actors you can’t consider because of the co-financing structure of your film. I mean, Guy Pearce, for example, being Australian, we had to get an exemption for him because he’s not Canadian and he’s not from the EU. And this is a Canada-EU co-production. Ultimately, you have to end up with the right actors for roles, and that can be quite tricky. I was so happy to have Vincent — of course, I’ve worked with him two other times. And Diane, I’ve never worked with her before but am a huge follower of her work. 

You are returning yet again to Cannes to premiere The Shrouds in competition. Tell us what Cannes means to you. 

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First of all, most of my films you have to consider to be independent. We don’t have $500 million to promote the film like Barbie had because it was a studio film. You can’t afford to fly all the actors and the director all over the world to various places. Cannes is wonderful because the world comes to Cannes — the cinema world, anyways — to see films in competition. So it’s an incredible marketing tool. That sounds very dry because Cannes prides itself on being a celebration of cinema, which it is and always has been. But on the pragmatic side, it’s fantastic publicity for your film. It’s an incredible way to introduce your new film to the world, especially if you’re an independent filmmaker with no huge promotion budget. And it’s very exciting and it’s a lot of fun, but it can also be terrifying as a filmmaker because you want that spotlight. But then, when it’s on you, it’s pretty scary actually. 

Tell us when David Cronenberg has been scared in Cannes. 

Every time. Every time. First of all, you want to make sure you don’t fall going up the red carpet stairs. They’re really steep. And the older you get, the more likely you’ll fall. I remember one time when I was going up the stairs and I glanced over and I saw the Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki. He was crawling up the stairs on his hands and knees — and with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. And I thought, “Well, OK, that’s one way to go up the stairs if you’re too drunk or something.” And I thought, “I’ll remember that technique for when I can’t walk up the stairs anymore.” He was crawling up the stairs, and he crawled all the way up. So I thought, “OK, that’s the fallback position, literally.” 

So you relish the notoriety of Cannes, as with the controversy around Crash, but not its red carpet entrances? 

It’s great, but I have reclusive tendencies. I don’t get out a lot. I remember [J.G.] Ballard when he came to Cannes for Crash [Ballard wrote the novel the film was based on and co-wrote the screenplay with Cronenberg], at a certain point he was at the press conference and he was so supportive of my film — he said the movie was better than his book and all that stuff. But later, as we were having dinner, he said, “This is a little too exciting for a writer.” 

Do you recall the thrill of Crash winning the Special Jury Prize? 

I don’t know that I want to go back and start reminiscing, frankly. I know it’s my fault because I’ve mentioned those moments. But I think I’d rather focus on this time in Cannes. Of course, it was very exciting. It was very unexpected. The film was very controversial. Our understanding was that Francis Ford Coppola, who was president of the jury at the time, wasn’t really crazy about the film and wasn’t really in favor of giving me the Special Jury award. But he was outvoted by enough of his jury. And that’s the way it goes. The president of the jury only has one vote, so you can’t really conclusively make the decision upon your own about which prizes go to which films. 

You famously said you’d retire after premiering Maps to the Stars in Cannes. Then you brought Crimes of the Future to Cannes two years ago. Now you’re returning with The Shrouds. Then you will finally retire? 

Of course, we know that Steven Soderbergh has retired 20 times already and is still making films. I’m sure it’s an impulse that every filmmaker has. I think Tarantino has even talked about this next film will be [his] last film. It’s a real impulse because filmmaking is hard, very hard. And there comes a time — and it doesn’t have to be because you’re older — where you think, “Maybe there’s some other things I could do that would be equally fulfilling and maybe not so difficult.” Some directors who have committed to doing a streaming series, they’re committing even more time because it’s like making four or more movies, especially if you’re going to write and direct them the way Steve Zaillian did with Ripley. It’s a huge commitment of time, and I don’t have another life for all that time. So I guess it would be more balanced and discreet to not mention those moments when you have that impulse because, of course, things change. And you might decide you’ve retired and you’re bored, and then you come back. So I have no idea right now what I will do next, but I don’t want to say that I won’t make another film. Because I don’t know. I really don’t know. 

So if you’re not ready to put your filmmaking career to bed, what makes you get up each day with an inkling you may do another movie?

What makes me wake up is the thought of breakfast, quite frankly. That’s enough to get me out of bed. 

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