Thu, Oct 11, 2007 - Page 14 News List

There's no escaping Cronenberg

Syphilitic parasites, eroticized car crashes and invading maggots - David Cronenberg's films drip with sex and violence. His latest, 'Eastern Promises,' is no exception, but don't confuse art with artist

By Simon Hattenstone  /  THE GUARDIAN , PARIS

The king of venereal horror thinks it's weird that so many people think he's weird.


David Cronenberg doesn't get it. Why do people think he's weird? OK, so he makes films in which men mutate into diseased flies, women give birth to giant slugs, car crashes are criticized, lovers penetrate vulva-like scars, game-players plug umbilical cords into their spines and syphilitic parasites go on the rampage. What's so damned unusual about that?

He seems shocked, outraged even, that viewers might be shocked and outraged by his films. After all, he says, they simply deal with the matter of life.

His vision is singular. What lies behind it? What inspired his love of blood and gore? He drills me with the eyes. "On the contrary, I wonder why you wouldn't be interested in that, and you're suggesting, in a way, that most people wouldn't."

Cronenberg has been making his existential horror movies for close on 40 years now. He is the master of his own genre - sometimes referred to as body horror or venereal horror. In his first films, Stereo and Crimes of The Future, he explores themes that are to emerge again and again through his body of work - diseased bodies, dissection, telepathy, sexual obsession, the growth of extracurricular organs and consciousness. Cronenberg has often been accused of misanthropy and, in particular, misogyny, but the director insists that he is merely shining a light on the human condition.

He has always been fascinated by, and fearful of, human beings invaded by foreign bodies. Shivers and Rabid are cautionary tales in which scientists modify the human body to disastrous effect. When in Rabid Marilyn Chambers grows a blood-sucking penis in her armpit, you just know things aren't going to turn out well. In later films, Cronenberg manages to combine schlocky splatterfest with downbeat naturalism, and has successfully adapted novels that were previously thought un-filmable - notably J.G. Ballard's Crash and William Burroughs' Naked Lunch. Burroughs' acid-trip masterpiece was perfect Cronenberg territory - as with so many of his films, you can't tell whether the action is happening in the "real" world or simply in the protagonist's head. Cronenberg the philosopher forces us to ask if there is a difference between the two.

His new film, Eastern Promises, about Russian gangsters in London, starts with three of the bloodiest scenes you are likely to see in the movies - a throat-cutting, the shooting of a heavily pregnant woman and a birth. The film is beautifully shot, pacy and overripe with carnage. In his previous movie, the impressive A History of Violence, a man's face is blown away and Cronenberg's camera focuses unapologetically (some might say gleefully) on the end result - a nauseating stew of tissue, blood and bone.

Cronenberg, now 64, has lived in the quiet, urbane city of Toronto all his life. He was born to secular Jewish parents - dad a writer, mom a musician. His upbringing was liberal and intellectually stimulating - he says he was never bored, despite growing up in the bland, closeted early 1950s.

By the age of 12, he was writing fiction. Not quite horror stories, but sufficiently sinister to surprise his classmates. Cronenberg's parents were atheists who encouraged him to experiment spiritually, convinced that sooner or later he'd find his own path to godlessness. And he did. This lack of belief, which became a belief system in itself, informs so much of his work: the primacy of the body, the finality of death, the lack of consolation. "It was apparent to me that religion was an invented thing," he says, "a wish-fulfillment thing, a fantasy thing. It was much more real, dangerous, to accept that mortality was the end for you as an individual. As an atheist, I don't believe in an afterlife, so if you're thinking of murder, if your subject is murder, then that's a physical act of absolute destruction because you're ending something, a body, that is unique. That person never existed before, will never exist again, will not be karmically recycled, will not go to heaven, therefore I take it seriously."

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