David Cronenberg’s latest loss is the plot

When his wife died, Karsh told the blind date he had taken to lunch that he had a strong desire to jump in the coffin with her rather than see her sent away alone. Instead, he devised a way to bring together the worlds of the living and the dead, creating a luxurious cemetery where the dead were wrapped in metal shrouds resembling camera blankets. Above ground, there are barriers above each grave from which you can watch your loved ones disintegrate.

Welcome to Gravetech, Canadian director David Cronenberg’s latest evil enterprise, and welcome to ShroudsCronenberg’s latest film to premiere in competition at the Cannes Film Festival.

For the four years since her death, the bereaved Karsh (Vincent Cassel) has been checking to see the body of his wife Becca – who had already collapsed from cancer before her death – rotting to the bone. The grave next to it is reserved for him. Karsh also owns a luxurious restaurant overlooking the Immaculate Cemetery. Would this cute lady in the navy blazer want to join him in looking at Becca’s rotting skeleton? Could this possibly be the worst date ever?

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Cronenberg is known as the dean of body horror, but even his most gruesome films don’t fit neatly into the conventions and expectations of the horror genre. Rather, his films are rooted in his fascination with the body: with our pink inner flesh, with the way the body pulses in life and deteriorates in death, with its pains, addictions, deviations, and potential transformations.

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This does not mean that he is not also interested in the outside world: how institutions deal with people and how people deal with each other. Now 81, he has forged his own style from this combination of profound emotion and the cerebral, adhering to a simple pictorial style and encouraging a lack of affect in his actors, which leaves us in no doubt that these are primarily intellectual works. On a personal level, Cronenberg is a civilized professor. You expect him to give you a reading list.

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Fortunately, his usual flat style is invigorated here by performances from actors new to his meaty world. Cassell, who embodies the bereaved Karsh, seems to vibrate with emotions that have just been brought under control. Diane Kruger plays his dead wife—always naked and sometimes partially torn apart in his torturous black-and-white dreams—and her sister Terry, an obsessive dog walker who forces him to have an affair with her.

Guy Pearce gives a disturbing, nauseating performance as Maury, the computer server whose divorce from Terry six years earlier has left him in a state of despair. Morrie set up Karsh’s computer. He now claims to live inside him, along with the blonde AI robot Hunny – also Mori’s creation – who manages Karsh. She also tries to cheer him up by appearing on his screen as a koala, the kind of misreading of the room one might expect from an AI robot. Or actually for Mori.

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We are introduced to Gravetech’s work in a moment of crisis, when nine of the graves – including Becca’s – are smashed to pieces. It is clear that the vandals targeted specific graves; Further investigation shows that the skeletons in these graves are covered with small bumps that resemble benign tumors but are then identified as transmitters. Why them? Who demolished these graves and why? All the wires are cut, and access to the bodies is denied, but to what extent? No one demands a ransom.

at this point, Shrouds It’s presented as a fairly straightforward mystery, albeit with a bit more grisly skin. There are fluctuations. There are turns. Was Becca’s oncologist, a colleague named Eckler who was her boyfriend before she met Karsh, using her body like a lab rat for experimental treatments? Did you know this and apply anyway? The shrouds themselves were manufactured in China. Are they the vanguard of the surveillance network that will soon creep throughout the Western Hemisphere, not just its cemeteries? Were the doctors in cahoots with the Chinese agents, as Mori believed? Or the Russians, given Morey’s entanglements with Russian hackers?

By the last half hour of Shrouds, these various plot threads (and too many others to mention) wander menacingly like loose electrical cables in a storm. Terry tells Karsh that she’s sexually motivated by conspiracy theories, which seems to suit him as well. By the time the final titles roll, with the question of who wielded the hammer on the tombstones unanswered, they are sure to burn like the proverbial ring of fire. Whatever you might expect from Cronenberg as a distinguished auteur — wry humor, measured pacing, a gleeful immersion in goop — you don’t expect the narrative to explode to bits. This is really a new kind of ick.

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Title: Shrouds
festival: was (competition)
Director and screenwriter: David Cronenberg
ejaculate: Vincent Cassel, Diane Kruger, Guy Pearce, Sandrine Holt
Sales agent: SBS International
Running time: 1 hour and 56 minutes

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