David Cronenberg’s films have often imagined a future where technology would find a way into our collective id. 55 years into the director’s incomparable career, might that future have finally caught up with him? In Cronenberg’s new film––the slick, scrambled The Shrouds––there are two barely speculative conceits: that an AI chatbot could be designed to look like a recently deceased love one; and primarily, that a company might have the bright idea to wrap a blanket of HD cameras around our nearest and dearest before they’re sent six-feet-under, allowing us to check in on their decaying corpse, all with the click of an app.

If that sounds a little unambitious by the Canadian’s standards, the director––whose wife of 43 years, Carolyn, died in 2017 after a battle with cancer––has his reasons. If “grief is forever,” as the director said before the premiere in Cannes, it certainly lingers in The Shrouds: a sci-fi conspiracy thriller about the process of mourning that offers just about enough resonance, style, and humor to forgive its knotted narrative and inconsequential loose ends. These involve everything from eco-terrorists, mysterious Chinese and Russian interests, an antagonist we never meet, and the suggestion that a stylish undertaker who puts monitors on his headstones could be considered a kind of low-level tech guru.

The film stars Vincent Cassel (hair slicked back like the director) as Karsh, who is both the founder of GraveTech and proprietor of The Shrouds, a luxury restaurant where patrons lucky enough to get a window seat are treated to an appetizing view of the graveyard where Karsh’s wife is buried. Her name is Becca and she is played in Karsh’s necrophilic dreams (where she still bears the scars of her metastasized cancer) by Diane Kruger, who also plays Becca’s identical sister, Terry––fans of Vertigo will know how that situations tends to pan out––as well as voicing Hunny, the AI chatbot in whom Karsh confides.

Karsh is planning to expand the business to Iceland and Budapest, but environmentalists are already pushing back; when a group of activists ransack the cemetery where Becca is buried, hacking into the system and denying Karsh his morbid obsession of constantly checking on her corpse, he begins to suspect a shady plot. He starts dating a glamorous blind woman. He also enlists Terry’s hangdog IT-guy ex-husband (Guy Pierce, given the unenviable task of explaining the plot’s machinations) to help get to the bottom of it.

Having returned to form with Crimes of the Future, it’s surprising that so much of The Shrouds falls flat: the awkward sex scenes, the general incoherence, the uncharacteristically unimaginative tech (though I did like the gothic vibe of the blanket of cameras used to cloak the corpses). That said, for a meditation on death, grief, cancer, and libido, The Shrouds is funnier than expected––for one, Cronenberg introduces Karsh’s restaurant/graveyard concept by sending him on a hilariously ill-conceived first date––and when it comes to that eerily clean aesthetic, the master remains hard to beat. It’s by far the inferior film, but Shrouds is Cronenberg in Dead Ringers mode, counterpointing his characters’ slippery Freudian concerns with surgically sharp imagery (the DP is Douglas Koch) and a subtly atmospheric score from Howard Shore. The film premiered last night in Cannes, just 24 hours after Caroline Fargeat’s très-Cronenbergian body-horror picture The Substance rocked the Croisette, less than three years since Julia Ducournau did the same. He still hits different.

The Shrouds premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival.

Grade: B-

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