It’s been a while now since David Cronenberg opened a film with a proper credits sequence, as opposed to printing a few titles and leaving the remaining credits for the end. Until recently, the credits sequence had been a mainstay of his work. The Canadian filmmaker often said in interviews that he valued the convention since it created a buffer zone between reality and the world of the film. These sequences create the impression that Cronenberg’s leading the audience down the proverbial rabbit hole, the music of Howard Shore (who’s scored all the director’s films, save one, since The Brood) heightening the air of curiosity. When the narrative begins, we’re distinctly someplace else. It never feels like a shock when the film presents us with some ungodly transformation, as every Cronenberg movie inevitably does. On a gut level, we know we’re not looking at regular people.
By this point, Cronenberg—or, rather, the tight-knit team of artists that also includes Shore, production designer Carol Spier, cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, costumer designer Denise Cronenberg, and editor Ronald Sanders—has so crystallized a distinct cinematic language that I suppose introductory gestures are no longer necessary. The filmmakers create that buffer zone through their precise manipulation of sound and space, limiting the soundtrack to dialogue and a few choice effects and locking us into the characters’ immediate vision before cutting to a wide shot. It’s as though the characters are sitting in a petri dish. Writing in 2005, critic Kent Jones aptly described the outlook of Cronenberg’s films as “a biological, as opposed to a sociological, psychological, or metaphysical vision of existence.”
My theory is that every movie by Cronenberg and company tells essentially the same story: a person or group of people becomes infected by some foreign body and mutates from within. You can apply this reading even to the filmmakers’ “realistic” works. A Dangerous Method is less a historical drama about Freud and Jung than a work of science fiction that presents psychoanalysis as an alien force. (Eastern Promises approaches criminality in a similar way.) In some Cronenberg works (M. Butterfly, A History of Violence) the protagonist has completed their transformation before the narrative begins, but the audience is made aware of the character’s transformation by the presence of an identification figure (Jeremy Irons in Butterfly, Maria Bello in Violence) who gradually learns of the process.
In Cosmopolis and now Maps to the Stars, there is no identification figure among the major characters, but the underlying theme remains the same: that the creatures under observation here belong to a different species than the rest of humanity. The mannered dialogue of these films—by Don DeLillo and Bruce Wagner, respectively—is made to sound deliberately unnatural, almost like a sort of code. One can easily imagine the straightforward anti-Hollywood satire that most other filmmakers would have made out of Wagner’s script. But by locking Wagner’s language in their patented echo chamber, Cronenberg and company render it more provocative. It doesn’t register as simple bad-taste humor, for instance, when the monstrous child star of Maps speaks to others in obscene and abusive terms. Delivered in the same matter-of-fact style as every other line in the film, his language sounds indicative of the unique communication system in which he was raised. That system, like the one considered in Cosmopolis, is decidedly better suited for describing market forces than basic human needs. Such is the horror of the filmmakers’ two most recent features—that the world of advanced capitalism might as well be an alien planet.