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A stair is born for David Cronenberg at Cannes

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

CANNES, France — For this year’s 75th anniversary, the Cannes Film Festival has updated its floating red staircase intro at screenings. The names of favourite directors have been added, one per stair, with David Cronenberg getting his own red step just a few below Martin Scorsese, the director at the top.

“Ah, that’s so sweet!” Cronenberg says with a smile, when I show him a photo of his spot among the stairs.

“They’re saying that (Scorsese) is on a higher level than I am and I’m fine with that. But they like me anyway!”

The Toronto writer/director is genuinely touched to be recognized by a festival where, at 79, he’s once again competing for the Palme d’Or, the top prize. He’s Canada’s sole challenger among the 21-film international competition.

His body horror thriller “Crimes of the Future,” starring Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux and Kristen Stewart, had its world premiere here Monday night at the Palais des Festivals, receiving strong audience applause and generally high marks from critics. It’s the sixth time Cronenberg has competed for the Palme, which will be awarded Saturday night at the fest’s closing ceremony.

“It’s not the Palme d’Or that excites me,” Cronenberg tells the Star, in an interview on a hotel balcony overlooking a lush garden, not much more than a stone’s throw away from the busy waterfront Croisette promenade. Dressed all in black for the interview, he seems relaxed after taking the train here from Paris the day before.

“It’s just screening here that’s exciting. Once I hear that theme song (‘The Carnival of the Animals,’ by Camille Saint-Saëns), my heart will start pounding then. That’s partly because the movie is going to be shown and partly because of the history I have with Cannes. That goes back, really, to the early ’70s. It’s a good history, very good. Actually, it’s very, very good.”

Cronenberg has never won the Palme, but he did receive a special jury prize for “audacity” at the 1996 festival, for his dystopian drama “Crash,” a story of people sexually aroused by auto accidents.

His new film, “Crimes of the Future,” takes a creepy step deeper into sexual pathology. It’s about people of the near future who get off on altering their insides and/or outsides, either through biological methods (growing bizarre new organs) or sculpting by scalpel (“Surgery is the new sex,” is their motto). Still others have figured out how to consume plastics and other synthetic substances in place of organic food, a narrative thread that builds intrigue. The government wants to take control, fearing “insurrectional” human evolution.

The movie shares little in common with a 1970 Cronenberg film of the same name (he really digs the title) but it has a lot in common with “Painkillers,” a film about a future world without pain. The project was announced at the 2005 Cannes fest, from a script Cronenberg wrote between 1998 and 2000, but which he never got around to making for various reasons.

Producer Robert Lantos told Cronenberg he should revisit the “Painkillers” script. The filmmaker initially balked at the idea, arguing that technology has changed so much in the past quarter century that the sci-fi concepts were “probably totally irrelevant” now.

“And he said, ‘No, it’s more relevant than ever.’ That was his quote … and I thought, he’s actually right. It’s bizarre. It is more relevant than it was then. Then it was kind of sci-fi and now it’s like reality. So I thought, well, then that’s an interesting thing to do. And I did like the writing, I liked the dialogue and the characters. To me, it’s like a script that somebody else wrote. That’s often the case.”

“Crimes of the Future” is almost completely based on the original “Painkillers” script, Cronenberg says, including the part about people consuming plastic — which a lot of us are doing inadvertently, according to recent news reports from health authorities warning of microplastics getting into the food chain.

Says Cronenberg: “I did see the (health alert) a couple of weeks or more ago that showed that many people now have plastic in the bloodstream and quite a bit before that it was 80 per cent of people have plastic in their flesh. Microplastics, of course, was not a word in 2000. So is (the film) prophecy? Is (it) visionary? It’s accidental, but to me it was obvious in 2000 that were just totally f—-ing up the planet. And a lot of that has to do with plastic since 2000.”

Cronenberg has been telling U.S. trade publications that he expects to see some people walk out of his film in the first five minutes and more during the final 20 minutes. It is indeed a harrowing watch, but no more extreme than many other Cronenberg nightmares, like the exploding heads of “Scanners” and the gruesome man-to-insect morphing of “The Fly.”

Does he enjoy scaring people? As usual, he gives a qualified answer.

“I have these interesting thoughts, these visuals, these images, and these strange connections, and they troubled me, they fascinated me, or they just delighted me. I’m inviting (moviegoers) to come along with me and see what you think of these things. That’s basically my approach.

“I don’t mind if I scare people. But I don’t need to scare people.”

“Crimes of the Future” is Cronenberg’s first feature film in eight years. His Hollywood satire “Maps to the Stars” also premiered at Cannes in competition. He keeps busy — TV guest spots and a planned second novel — but he doesn’t feel the need to be constantly making movies, even though he recently announced another sci-fi film he plans to make: “The Shrouds,” starring Vincent Cassel, about a man’s attempt to communicate with his dead wife.

Cronenberg fans should probably not be in too much of a hurry to see “The Shrouds.” As the father of three children and grandfather of four, he’s happy now to enjoy life and just take things at his own pace.

“I’m a very, very happy person. I can chill very easily. I can be passionate about a project that I’m doing, but I’m not desperate to do anything, you know. I’m happy to just float.”

He adds: “If I’m alive, I’m going to make another movie. But if I’m dead, I probably won’t!” 🌓

(This interview originally ran in the Toronto Star.)


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