When David Cronenberg accepts his Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Film Festival, the occasion will be marked by a screening of one of his 21 films. Cronenberg’s selection? “M. Butterfly,” his 1993 adaptation of David Henry Hwang’s Tony-winning play, about the decades-spanning love affair between a cross-dressing Chinese opera singer and the French diplomat unaware of his lover’s gender identity.
It’s a surprising choice, but then surprises are to be expected from the 75-year-old Canadian auteur, who has consistently evaded predictability across a five-decade career. “M. Butterfly” is rarely spoken of by critics as one of Cronenberg’s essential, or indeed quintessential, works: Reviews at the time were cool, and the film hasn’t built much of a revisionist following since. Yet Cronenberg is said to consider it among his most personal films. On closer inspection, you can see why. In an oeuvre that has often been fixated on bodily transformation and irregular desire, it’s one of his most tenderly human examinations of those themes.
Cronenberg’s work is most routinely associated with “body horror”: that subgenre of cinema hinging on the physical violation, corruption or extreme morphosis of the human form. It’s present in everything from “The Brood,” to “The Fly,” to “Videodrome.”
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It’s an obsession that has earned Cronenberg the devotion of hardcore genre acolytes and highbrow cinephiles alike. As a cinematic kinkster, Cronenberg arrived pretty much fully formed: Nearly silent and merely 65 minutes long, his 1969 debut feature “Stereo” unlocked a host of his regular fascinations, focusing as it did on an “Academy of Erotic Enquiry,” where volunteers seek to expand their sexual horizons through telepathy. The next year, in the similarly short, scrappy “Crimes of the Future,” Cronenberg imagined a bleak future without adult women, their absence pushing men toward abusive sexual dysfunction and bizarre physical mutation.
Cronenberg’s own Academy of Erotic Enquiry — and goodness knows what else — was thus open for business. “Shivers,” “Rabid” and the aforementioned “The Brood” bloodily carved out his body horror niche, awash with parasites, zombies and phallic blood-sucking armpit stingers. In the 1980s, the exploding-head exploitation-fest “Scanners” brought him luridly into the video-nasty era, leaving an unauthorized franchise of diminishing returns in its wake; in “Videodrome,” he seemed to satirize its shameless notoriety. A taut Stephen King adaptation, “The Dead Zone,” coaxed Cronenberg into the mainstream; true commercial paydirt arrived with “The Fly,” which matched all his ickiest fantasies to nightmarish effects worthy of them.
Then came “Dead Ringers” — for this critic, his greatest and most serpentine film — which ushered Cronenberg into a new realm of arthouse respectability. This sinuous, frozen-blood study of twin gynecologists playing abusive mind and body games with a patient won him critics’ awards, boosted the career of Jeremy Irons and marked his first collaboration with cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, whose chilly, fine-lined imagery has defined Cronenberg’s aesthetic ever since.
Wilder provocations followed, including the lavishly demented “Naked Lunch”; the videogame headrush of “eXistenZ,” which married the grisly, nerdy preoccupations of his earlier B-movies to a sleeker filmic language; and, most vividly and controversially of all, “Crash,” his fearless, frankly sensual spin on J.G. Ballard’s novel about car-crash sexual fetishism. Widely misinterpreted (often sight unseen) as a rubbernecking shocker, it holds up as a morally inquisitive, non-judgmental examination of erotic deviance. The compassion of Cronenberg’s films can often startle as much as their contortions.
His stylistic reach has only grown: “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises” brought simmering undercurrents of brutal psychological unrest to seemingly tidy thriller formats, emerging as two of his most successful films in the process; “A Dangerous Method” put the psychic pain squarely in the foreground and let the bodily kink writhe around it. His Patrick McGrath adaptation “Spider” was a solemnly exquisite cat’s-cradle of trauma; his two most recent films, “Cosmopolis” and “Maps to the Stars,” have tapped an inky vein of desperate, end-of-civilization comedy that feels at once urgently millennial and shaded by an older artist’s cynicism.
It’s a late-career run that has significantly stretched and deepened the definition of “Cronenbergian,” though his qualified versatility — any color you like, as long as it’s black-hearted — has yet to land him the top prize at a festival, or a single Oscar nomination. Venice’s award is a long-due one for an artist who has never sought to unite opinion.