He started as a horror film director with such a proclivity for gore that he became known as The Baron of Blood. But David Cronenberg evolved into one of the most revered, audacious and polarizing filmmakers of his time – and now all of his features are going on show as part of a sprawling retrospective at the Cinematheque.
Videodrome, The Fly, The Dead Zone, Naked Lunch, Crash, A History of Violence and Cosmopolis are just a few of the landmark films being screened at From Within: The Films of David Cronenberg, a TIFF-organized collection that spans 20 films and more than four decades.
The plots vary wildly, from a man who slowly transforms into a fly to a group of people who get sexual satisfaction from witnessing – and even causing – car crashes; but according to Ernest Mathijs, University of British Columbia film-studies professor and author of The Cinema of David Cronenberg: From Baron of Blood to Cultural Hero, all of Mr. Cronenberg's films have one theme in common: the human body out of control.
"They don't do what they're supposed to do. They develop all kinds of weird, gross tumours and habits and physical deviations, which the protagonist observes in wonder and tries to manage, and in the end is forced to accept," says Mr. Mathijs, who adds that Mr. Cronenberg tries to erase "the Cartesian split" between body and mind. "But society won't let them exist like that, so the films usually end with the death of the protagonist."
Mr. Mathijs's top pick is 1983's Videodrome, which features Debbie Harry of Blondie, James Woods and Sonja Smits in a story about a CEO of a small TV station who discovers a broadcast signal that features extreme violence and torture.
"It brought all of his themes together and added a deep philosophical tone that's much more explicit than in the previous films," says Mr. Mathijs, who first saw the film as a teenager in Belgium during a TV strike, in a time slot where the national station usually aired The Muppet Show and Dallas.
"It still has all the gore and all the violence, but there's something in the film that when you're watching it you think, 'This is about more than just a story, about more than just the imagery. There's something very profound being said here.' "
From Within: The Films of David Cronenberg is at the Cinematheque until May 2. The opening reception is tonight and features a special introduction by Mr. Mathijs (thecinematheque.ca).