A grieving man invents a way to stay close to his dead wife in David Cronenberg’s lumbering Competition entry

The Shrouds

Source: Cannes

‘The Shrouds’

Dir/scr: David Cronenberg. Canada/France. 2024, 119 mins.

Toronto businessman Karsh (Vincent Kassel) lost his wife Rebecca (Diane Kruger) to an aggressive form of cancer some four years ago. And it’s fair to say he hasn’t let either her or his grief go. He has created a company called Gravetech, and invented a shroud (designed by the film’s co-producer Saint Laurent) which allows relatives the opportunity to watch their loved one’s corpse disintegrate in real time via a video app. The Shrouds, David Cronenberg’s seventh film to compete at Cannes, certainly boasts a terrific premise. But it is indeed a day to grieve when the most shocking thing about a David Cronenberg film is how dull it is.

Not something which enhances the legacy of one of cinema’s greats

The Shrouds seems like a personal project for the Canadian director, whose own partner died prematurely in 2017. Reportedly conceived as two episodes of an abandoned Netflix show, there is typically very little raw emotion to it: that’s not what Cronenberg is famous for. There’s a light, effective touch of body horror – a reminder of his enduring power to shock, although it pales in comparison to the delirious theatrics of fellow Cannes Competition entrant The Substance. But its sly irony is muffled by a convoluted, fatally tedious plot. Arriving two years after the 81 year-old director’s Crimes Of The Future, The Shrouds is set for French release in September.

With his elongated, triangular face and Bart Simpson hairdo, Kassel is a good physical stand-in for Cronenberg, and the French actor makes light work of stylistically stilted dialogue. He’s introduced in the dentist’s chair: his teeth are rotting from grief. He goes on a blind date, bringing his companion to his restaurant, The Shrouds at Gravetech, which overlooks his late wife Rebecca’s plot. The woman says she doesn’t mind a bit of darkness, but it’s unlikely she’ll have expected to watch the corpse of her date’s dead wife rotting in real time. 

We’ve seen Rebecca already, dead and in stasis. But she also comes to Karsh in dreams, replaying an aggressive treatment therapy which saw her lose a breast and part of her arm, and undergo some extensive shoulder surgery that required the kind of surgical clips that we all remember from Crash – even though that was 28 years ago, once seen, never forgotten with Cronenberg body horror. That Rebecca has an identical sister Terry, to whom Karsh is attracted, brings to mind Dead Ringers, and she also has an computer avatar, Hunny, meaning Kruger is playing three parts. Hunny is the only one who keeps her clothes on. It may be a tedious point to make for fans (although it’s at least shorter than the film), but why does body horror always seem to involve naked female actors who perhaps lose a breast, while their male counterparts keep their clothes on and maybe sacrifice a finger?

That’s the least of the film’s problems, though. By the end, viewers might be grateful for a mutilated boob to provide some relief from two hours of increasingly convoluted plotting which spins out of any zone of interest. Guy Pearce plays Karsh’s manic former brother-in-law who set up Gravetech’s software and may be up to no good – he created Hunny, who also may be plotting against Karsh. Rebecca’s suspicious surgeon has disappeared in Iceland. The graveyard in which she is interred is mysteriously desecrated. Chinese and Russian entities may be plotting to hijack Gravetech’s software and set up international spying networks. A Budapest businessman also sends his blind Korean-French wife (Sandrine Holt) to Toronto to set up a Hungarian franchise for Gravetech. Karsh sleeps with her. Terry is turned on by conspiracy theories, so Karsh is busy in bed – as busy as the plot.

Howard Shore provides the music and Saint Laurent’s Anthony Vaccarello produces. Camerawork by Douglas Koch is soft and supple. It’s a luxe affair. There are a lot of random, orphan thoughts in here — Terry’s work as a vet-turned-dog groomer, Karsh’s decision to turn his apartment into a Japanese retreat. These just lead to nowhere but a suspicion that the script was a fast green light. This may be understandable at Cronenberg’s age and the difficulties in financing films at this budget level, but not something which enhances the legacy of one of cinema’s greats. The krieg lights at Cannes may not be kind to it.

Production companies:  SBS Productions, Prospero Pictures, Saint Laurent Productions

International sales: SBS International contact@sbs-distribution.fr

Producers: Said Ben Said, Martin Katz, Anthony Vaccarello

Cinematography: Douglas Koch

Production design: Carol Spier

Editing: Christopher Donaldson

Main cast: Vincent Cassel, Diane Kruger, Guy Pearce, Sandrine Holt