‘The Shrouds’ Review: Body Horror Master David Cronenberg Loses The Plot In A Tangle Of Conspiracy Theories – Cannes Film Festival

When his wife died, Karsh tells the blind date he has asked to lunch, he had an overwhelming urge to jump into the coffin with her rather than see her sent away alone. Instead, he contrived a way to straddle the worlds of the living and the dead, setting up a luxury cemetery where the dead are wrapped in metallic shrouds that are like camera blankets. Above ground, there are screens over each grave on which you can watch your loved one disintegrating.

Welcome to Gravetech, the latest of Canadian director David Cronenberg’s sinister institutions, and welcome to The Shrouds, Cronenberg’s latest feature to debut in competition at the Cannes Film Festival.

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Over the four years since she died, the painfully bereaved Karsh (Vincent Cassel) has been checking in to see his wife Becca’s body – already crumbling with cancer before she passed – rot down to the bone. The grave next to hers is reserved for him. Karsh also owns the ritzy restaurant that overlooks the immaculate burial ground. Would this nice lady in the navy blazer like to join him in looking at his Becca’s mouldering skeleton? Is this possibly the worst date ever?

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Cronenberg is known as the doyen of body horror, but even the most gruesome of his films are a bad fit with the conventions and expectations of the horror genre. Rather, his films are rooted in his fascination with the body: with our pink interior flesh, with the way the body pulsates in life and deteriorates in death, with its afflictions, addictions, perversions and potential transformations.

Which is not to say he is not also intrigued by the outside world: how institutions treat people and how people handle each other. Now 81, he has forged his own genre from this mix of the visceral and cerebral, sticking to a plain shooting style and encouraging a lack of affect in his actors that leaves us in no doubt that these are primarily think pieces. In person, Cronenberg is urbanely professorial. You expect him to give you a reading list.

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Happily, his customary flat style is energized here by the performances brought by actors new to his fleshy universe. Cassel, embodying the bereaved Karsh, seems to vibrate with emotions only just kept in check. Diane Kruger plays both his dead wife — always naked and sometimes partially dismembered in his tormented black-and-white dreams —  and her sister Terry, a zany dog-walker who corners him into having an affair with her.

Guy Pearce gives a fabulously agitated, mouth-foaming performance as Maury, a computer boffin whose divorce from Terry six years earlier has left him in despair. Maury set up Karsh’s computer. He now claims to live inside it, along with blonde Hunny the AI bot – also Maury’s creation – that does Karsh’s admin. She also tries to cheer him up by appearing on his screen as a koala, which is the kind of misreading of a room one might expect of an AI bot. Or, indeed, of Maury.

We are introduced to the business of Gravetech at a moment of crisis, when nine of the graves – including Becca’s — have been smashed to pieces. It is clear that the vandals have singled out particular graves; further investigation shows that the skeletons in these graves are encrusted with small protrusions that look like polyps but are then identified as transmitters. What are they for? Who destroyed these graves and why? All the wires are cut and access to the bodies denied, but to what end? Nobody is demanding a ransom.

At this point, The Shrouds presents as a fairly straightforward mystery, albeit with extra lashings of the macabre. There are twists; there are turns. Was Becca’s oncologist, a fellow called Ekler who was her boyfriend before she met Karsh, using her body like a lab rat for experimental treatments? Did she know this and submit anyway? The shrouds themselves were manufactured in China; are they the vanguard of a surveillance network that will soon be snaking throughout the Western hemisphere, not only its graves? Were the doctors in cahoots with Chinese agents, as Maury believes? Or Russians, given Maury’s entanglements with Russian hackers?

By the last half-hour of The Shrouds, these various plot threads (and many others, too many to mention) are whipping around dangerously like loose electric cables in a storm. Terry tells Karsh she is sexually excited by conspiracy theories, which seems to work for him too. By the time the final titles roll, with the question of who took a mallet to those gravestones still unanswered, she must surely be burning like that proverbial ring of fire. Whatever else you may expect of Cronenberg as a distinctive auteur – wry humor, a measured pace, exultant wallowing in foul goo  – you’re not expecting the narrative to explode into bits. That really is a new kind of ick.

Title: The Shrouds
Festival: Cannes (Competition)
Director-screenwriter: David Cronenberg
Cast: Vincent Cassel, Diane Kruger, Guy Pearce, Sandrine Holt
Sales agent: SBS International
Running time: 1 hr 56 min

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