‘The Shrouds’ Review: David Cronenberg Makes a Movie About Grief — and Body Horror, and Digital Gravestones — That in Its Somber Way Verges on Self-Parody

“How dark do you want to go?” The man asking that is named Karsh (Vincent Cassel), and he’s seated in a minimalist art-chic restaurant having lunch with a blind date (though as she points out, how blind can a date be in the age of Google?). The one who’s really asking the question, though, is David Cronenberg, writer-director of “The Shrouds.” He’s been asking that question — to audiences — for his entire career, and to him the answer has always been the same: The darker the better.

Yet Cronenberg has a special brand of dark. In “The Shrouds,” Karsh is a businessman who produces industrial videos, with a sleek Toronto apartment that looks out at the CN Tower, but he’s also a co-owner of the restaurant they’re sitting in, and the purveyor of what’s in the garden next to it: a cemetery where the gravestones are technological devices, and the corpses are draped in futuristic shrouds that allow you to peer into the coffin below and see how your dear departed loved one is…rotting. Karsh’s wife, who died of cancer, is buried under one of those stones. Using the shroud-cam, he likes to stare, close up, at her corpse, and to imagine that he’s in the coffin along with her, snuggling. How dark do you want to go?

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Cronenberg’s own second wife, Carolyn Zeifman, died in 2017 (they’d been married since 1979), and he has owned up to how much “The Shrouds” is a personal film for him. As Karsh, the French actor Vincent Cassel has his hair styled in a whitish-gray pompadour that echoes Cronenberg’s swept-back mane, though one doesn’t necessarily want to overstate what that means. If Cronenberg had wanted to make Karsh his total surrogate, he might have given him glasses, or might not have cast the sly European Cassel to play a version of the menschy Canadian Cronenberg. Cassel looks enough like Cronenberg, but in “The Shrouds” his aura is totally different. He’s more like the Boris Karloff of Eurotrash death fetishism.

Cronenberg has long been the queasy king of body horror, a genre he essentially invented. You could say that a lot of horror films, even old studio-system monster movies, have tapped into body horror (think of the traumatized transformation scenes in “The Wolfman”). But the Cronenberg touch isn’t just that he’s more explicit. It’s that he always makes horror feel like something medical. His thrillers were about parasites that came from within, about demons that took the form of cancer, about a man’s DNA merging with that of a fly. (“Videodrome” was about a man merging with a VCR, but let’s leave that aside.) After 20 years of this stuff, even Cronenberg seemed like he’d had enough.

Starting in the ’90s, his films veered off in a dozen different directions. He made “Naked Lunch”…and “M. Butterfly”…and “A History of Violence”…and “Eastern Promises”…and “A Dangerous Method”…and “Cosmopolis”…as well as a movie that was better than all of them: the insidious psychological puzzle thriller “Spider.” And though moments in those films were touched by Cronenberg’s trademark bio-trauma, with the exception of “Crash” he more or less stayed away from body horror for 20 years.

But now he’s returned to it with an icky vengeance. “Crimes of the Future,” his out-there psychodrama from two years ago, borrowed the title of Cronenberg’s 1970 experimental feature (basically a stasis movie about people lying around leaking fluids out of their mouths), and with its tale of a future in which people grow organs, and the hero turns the surgical harvesting of his own organs into a species of performance art, it aimed to give audiences a Full Cronenberg jolt. “Crimes of the Future” certainly wasn’t boring, but there was something weirdly academic about it. It was a body-horror movie that kept growing new “ideas,” a fantasy that wore its metaphors on its operating gown. When I reviewed it out of Cannes, I had very mixed feelings, and I think that’s where most of the world landed. (The film grossed a worldwide total of $4.5 million.)

But with “The Shrouds,” Cronenberg is tripling down on body horror. He’s 81 now, and this may be his way of saying that he’s not going to go gentle into that good night. He wants to rev things up with a squishy bang. I wish I could say the result was powerful, but the strange conundrum of Cronenberg’s recent movies is that the more obsessed he becomes with the body, the more he seems to lead from the head. “The Shrouds” could almost be a “Saturday Night Live” parody of Cronenberg. The movie is about love and death and cancer and conspiracy and hallucinations and God knows what else. Every time it adds a new element, the film seems to be asking, “How dark do you want to go?” But is this a drama or a contest?

Karsh started GraveTech, his futuristic voyeuristic gravestone company, out of a desire to remain with his wife. He says, “It has drained away that fluid of grief that was drowning me.” But who, if I may ask, does Cronenberg think is going to identify with that? Maybe the same people who watched “Crash” and thought that being maimed in car accidents is sexy. The trouble with these ideas isn’t that they’re too extreme — it’s that they’re borderline absurd.

But Cronenberg is a gifted pathologist of fantasy who goes so far with his ideas that he creates a world out of them. Are the polyps growing on Karsh’s wife’s bones some strange sort of post-death cancer — or are they tracking devices? When a dozen of the gravestones are desecrated, a corporate agenda may be at work. Guy Pearce is the miserable, disheveled hacker-geek ex-husband of Karsh’s late wife’s sister, and he brings the movie a note of paranoia that jacks up the perversity.

The film’s co-star, Diane Kruger, plays several roles, notably Karsh’s late wife (seen in flashback) and her snappish veterinarian-turned-dog-groomer sister. They’re both women of force, and Kruger allows herself to go all the way with Cronenberg’s conceits, letting her nudity be used as a kind of canvas on which he can scrawl his drama of damage. There’s another character, Soo-Min (Sandrine Holt), who becomes fused in Karsh’s imagination with his wife, as if the film were trying to be “Persona” crossed with “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.” As “The Shrouds” goes on, it becomes more earnest and more nutty. I think Cronenberg thinks he’s making movies that audiences will experience as feature-length versions of his own dreams. Here’s the difference: When you’re in a dream, you believe what’s happening.

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