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David Cronenberg The Shrouds Review

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The Shrouds | 2024 Cannes Film Festival Review

The Shrouds | 2024 Cannes Film Festival Review

Death Be Not Shroud: Cronenberg Hits Dead Ends in Sluggish Mystery

David-Cronenberg-the-shrouds-reviewThe burial business serves as the battle ground for a complicated conundrum in David Cronenberg’s latest, The Shrouds, a glum examination marrying death and technology. Once again, Cronenberg’s central protagonist navigates a ruinous obsession with bodies, but this time the horror deals with the last stop on life’s night train. Vincent Cassel, who reunites with the director after a memorable supporting role in 2007’s Eastern Promises, is a man so preoccupied with his late wife’s body he’s developed a technology which allows loved ones to peek into the coffin indefinitely, to witness the decomposition of the body via a monitor built into headstones operated by apps on their cell phones. To some it’s grotesque, and others, sublime. Either way, it’s perhaps appropriate this moody narrative feels as lethargic as the act of decay itself. To some, this film may be fascinating, and others, tiresome.

Karsh (Cassel) has become an ingenious entrepreneur since his wife died of lymphoma four years prior. He’s developed a burial shroud allowing visual access to corpses, perhaps indefinitely (but internet connectivity might also dictate this technology’s longevity and upkeep). He’s created a prototype cemetery in Toronto, attached to a thematically related restaurant. It would seem he’s still not quite over her death, however, advised by his dentist that grief is rotting his teeth (or, more correctly, eroding his bone density). But he happens to see some strange bone nodules appearing on his wife’s skeleton one day, and he approaches his wife’s twin sister Terry (Diane Kruger) for her thoughts, seeing as she used to be a veterinarian and knows something about decomposing bodies. Terry thinks they’re tracking devices left behind from clandestine experimental operations her sister’s radiologists were forcing her to undergo. Suddenly, nine of the graves are desecrated, and the data from their shroud streams encrypted and no longer accessible. To avoid a PR nightmare, considering contracts are in motion with other countries interested in adopting this shroud technology, Karsh decides to investigate himself while the headstones are restored.

David Cronenberg The Shrouds Review

For assistance, Karsh approaches Maury (Guy Pearce), Terry’s jealous ex-husband who developed the technology he not only utilizes for his shrouds, but also for an avatar serving as his assistant named Hunny. Maury seems suspicious of Karsh’s potential attraction to Terry, and is dismayed to learn Karsh had the Chinese company who developed the shrouds, Shining Cloth Technologies, retrofit his own home to correspond with the cemetery. A meeting with a new potential client is orchestrated by a blind woman named Soo-min (Sandrine Holt), whose dying husband is interested in buying in. An affair with Soo-min complicates the secret desires both he and Terry share, as well as confirming someone is monitoring Karsh for reasons he has yet to determine.

The central mystery in The Shrouds is initially the anxiety regarding who desecrated these nine graves and why. Narrative strands about grand political statements from special interest groups in Iceland or Hungary, where Karsh’s next cemeteries will be developed, are an obvious concern. A FaceTime call with Ingvar Sigurdsson, a representative for those fighting him in Iceland, confirms this might not be the case. Sigurdsson is also one of the many motifs of damaged bodies marred by natural, or organic means, suggesting there’s a sacred life process Karsh is violating by his toxic death shrouds. Sigurdsson’s voice has been irreparably damaged by sulphuric acid during his study of active volcano sites. There’s also the blind Soo-Min, a French-Korean woman whose dying husband remains offscreen. Of course, it’s important to juxtapose Karsh’s violation of seeing beyond the grave while she cannot see what’s in front of her.

Initially, this mystery is an intriguing one, especially as Cronenberg surrounds Cassel with incestuous elements regarding his uber jealous ex-brother-in-law and his sister-in-law Terry, who is the twin of his dead wife. There are elements of Preminger’s Laura (1944) and some necrophiliac tendencies, as well as Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), where a man is obsessed with and desiring a woman who is dead. But those men are lusting for her ample, supple, liveliness while we come to find Karsh is a man who seems to miss his wife’s body most while it was in a state of disrepair. Kruger pops up as an amputee in his fantasies, her brittle bones collapsing underneath the weight of his caresses in bed. The eventual boundary crossing with Terry, which seems to be orchestrated as a dysfunctional wish fulfillment from Maury, also confirms his preference for a version of her body in decline. A sex scene with Kruger and Cassel is comically loquacious, each attempting to soothe each other’s anxieties while they rush to a climax, initially triggered by Terry’s passions activated by her attraction to conspiracy theories (which, of course, feels like a watered down version of the hollowed out humans consumed by sex and crumpled metal in Crash, 1996).

The Shrouds also intriguingly plays like the sterilized cousin to Peter Greenaway’s exceptionally bombastic A Zed & Two Noughts (1985), where twin zoologists become obsessed with decomposition after their wives die in a car accident and a new woman allows them to, well, experiment on her. Greenaway used various bits of sped up footage depicting decomposition while Cronenberg’s laborious crawl to the finish feels like we’re watching that process in real time.

David Cronenberg The Shrouds Review

Though its appropriately maudlin score from Howard Shore and DP Douglas Koch’s (Crimes of the Future, 2022) vivid interiors (since this is all about ‘looking’ inside but staying safely outside) are appropriately sterling, the dramatic stakes feel so low in The Shrouds it’s as if the film is itself dead and we are the ‘corpse voyeurs’ obsessing over understanding her grand wreckage. Cassel’s performance also seems a bit muted, seeing as the narrative calls on him to seem shocked or irritated at certain revelations but he actually never seems surprised or bothered. Also, his interactive scenes with his AI avatar/professional assistant Hunny are a bit stilted, as if her creation in post production couldn’t quite line-up with Cassel’s performance. Diane Kruger is a zany little weirdo as the dog grooming conspiracy theorist Terry, while Guy Pearce often seems a bit adrift as a frazzled, tech savvy jack of all trades.

Ultimately, it would seem Karsh is the instigator of his own virtual world, where the enigmatic final moments suggest death and technology can be used to satisfy his most secret desires to indefinitely obtain access to not so much the woman he misses, but her body. Eerily, it feels like ‘choose your own adventure’ for the undead, and maybe the hapless, somewhat mundane Karsh has discovered a life hack which will make him a wholly satisfied man. To crib from Marcus Aurelius, “Be satisfied with your business, and learn to love what you were bred to.” Perhaps this is what technology is ultimately breeding us for, our business with the dead.

Reviewed on May 20th at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival – Competition. 116 Mins.

★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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