‘The Shrouds’ Cannes 2024 Review: David Cronenberg’s Latest Is The Saddest Body Horror You’ll See All Year

The Shrouds

Forgive us for auteur theory-ing this review in the opening paragraph, but The Shrouds immediately resonates with the trend of David Cronenberg’s most recent work (read: the past 12 years). From the claustrophobic Cosmopolis to the feverish Map to the Stars, all the way to the body-controlling dystopia of Crimes of the Future, Cronenberg’s “Late Era” films all stress the consequences of living in and profiting from a deeply sick society. 

Commerce, art, and surveillance are all baked into his strange, airless atmospheres, but while Cronenberg’s canted perspective on how we all poison ourselves has always felt tangibly present and singular (Saul Tenser’s measured critiques of Ear Man in Crimes of the Future made us wonder what mediocre avant-garde performances Cronenberg has sat through in his native Toronto), The Shrouds centers on a character and crisis that Cronenberg has directly linked to his own experience. After losing his wife in 2017, the provocative filmmaker developed a series for Netflix that they ultimately passed on, so it became his longest (still sub-two hours!) and emotional feature film.

Also Read: ‘Exhuma’ Review: Hey, Shaman. Leave Those Graves Alone.

The Shrouds follows Karsh (Vincent Cassel), an entrepreneur with shock white hair and a history in industrial video production. His company GraveTech has developed a burial shroud lined with tiny cameras so people can, through an app, view their loved ones’ decomposing remains at a flashy modern cemetery. It’s where his late wife Becca (Diane Kruger) resides. Seeing her decomposing corpse rendered faithfully on screens clearly gives Karsh a twin sense of anguish and serenity.

Karsh is on the verge of expanding his enterprise internationally, discussing plans to set up shop in Budapest with Soo-Min (Sandrine Holt), the blind wife of a Hungarian backer. When Karsh notices abnormal growths appearing on Becca’s skeleton (Becca died of complex bone cancer) and his cemetery is seriously vandalized, he starts working with Maury (Guy Pearce), the techy and nebbish ex-husband of Becca’s identical twin sister Terry (also Kruger). For those fearful that no actor will be tuned to the same insane frequency as Kristen Stewart in Crimes of the Future, the nervy, heightened affectations of Pearce and Kruger (as Terry) make for a decent substitute.

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The Shrouds is a vulnerable and playful blend of tech conspiracy and body horror. Yes, that positive assessment includes just how stilted and janky so much of the film is. Seriously, those put off by the stagey and unnatural timbre of Crimes of the Future will find little joy in this. But if you’re drawn to just how off-kilter, eerily intimate, and darkly comic the past four Cronenberg films have been, The Shrouds invites us deeper into the fold, where questions about the ubiquity of AI, the psychology of xenophobic conspiracies, and our blind acceptance of the intersections of medicine and capital are posed in urgent, sardonic ways.

Laced through everything is grief. It propels and sets back Karsh’s love life, and bleeds into every decision his business makes. Every conspiratorial suspicion is driven by grief’s hunger for clarity and closure. And when Karsh dreams of Becca being increasingly mutilated with experimental treatments, grief hangs over their careful touches as he fears breaking her fragile bones. These scenes are so vulnerable that they make you physically twinge at the pain and eroticism rendered on-screen. They crackle with an intensity that you only get if a filmmaker wants to lay bare everything that’s hurt them.

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But while The Shrouds succeeds as a portrait of techno-fied grief in a parasitic world, its treatment of geopolitical intrigue feels most unrealized. This is despite the fact that, as Cronenberg said in response to the haters, conspiracy is grief manifest. The Shrouds suffers not because of how it questions our hardwired attraction to conspiracy, but how the details are presented within the narrative. Often characters will reveal their true intentions or present shocking developments with a muted energy that, together with the film’s lack of stylistic fanfare, struggles to pull us into the thorny world Karsh must now navigate. 

There are too many merits to Cronenberg’s late style to ask him to change it up (“Why is everyone talking like that?” is one of the most flattering things you can say about a genre movie), but it feels ill-suited to the type of expository suspense plot that he wants to feature. But luckily The Shrouds is the type of film that lives on past creaky aesthetics in the form of subversive ideas, ones that feel so close to home because of how intimately Cronenberg presents them. In a film of catty digital assistants, dangerous divorcees, and rotatable renders of human corpses, The Shrouds wants to show you the saddest body horror you’ll see all year, when a dying woman pleads for her husband to hold her, knowing he will hurt her doing so. It’s an introspective maturation of Cronenberg’s oeuvre.

3.5

Summary

The Shrouds is the type of film that lives on past creaky aesthetics in the form of subversive ideas, ones that feel so close to home because of how intimately Cronenberg presents them.

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