The New Flesh: The Unnatural Nudity of David Cronenberg
Nudity is everywhere in the films of David Cronenberg. From his earliest artsy features Stereo and Crimes of the Future to his most popular films, The Fly and A History of Violence, nudity is pervasive. However, David Cronenberg almost never depicts nudity as natural or graceful. He’s neither a pornographer nor an erotic filmmaker. To Cronenberg, nudity is a means to depict the unnatural.
Cronenberg is famous for pioneering body horror, a horror subgenre that explores grotesque physical mutation or transformation that parallels mental transformation or devolution. Thus, for a filmmaker with such an obsession with the human body, it makes sense that nudity is commonplace. However, Cronenberg’s fascination with nudity is not limited to the usual confines of the horror genre; he is not satisfied with conventional depictions of the naked body as object of lust or violence. Instead, David Cronenberg depicts nudity as ugly, as dangerous, and ultimately as unnatural; nudity lays bare the darkness of humanity.
The ugliness of the nudity in the films of David Cronenberg is not as simple as Cronenberg hiring physically unattractive actors and filming them in various states of undress. Cronenberg is not interested in such simple conventions of beauty or ugliness. As well, his actors are often beautiful: Marilyn Chambers, Geena Davis, Holly Hunter, James Spader, Jeremy Irons, Viggo Mortensen—all these people are attractive. However, instead of shooting these actors as objects of lust and beauty, Cronenberg transforms their nakedness into a display of their ugliness.
For instance, in Cronenberg’s most sexual film, Crash, nudity is commonplace and deeply unattractive. The film follows James Spader’s Ballard as he explores car crash fetishism. Spader and the other performers in the film, including Elias Koteas, Holly Hunter, and Deborah Kara Unger, are often naked, however, their nudity is never sexy. Cronenberg is exploring fetishism, but he’s doing so like a scientist instead of an artist. Nudity here is always clinical and distant, and more-often-than-not, hideous.
Crash opens with three back-to-back sex scenes that dissociate nudity from sexual attraction. The sheer assault of sexuality desensitizes the viewer to the naked body, which then allows Cronenberg to twist it to more horrific ends. As the film progresses, and the sex scenes continue, the naked body becomes grotesque. This use of ugly nudity culminates when Spader has sex with the vulva-shaped wound on the leg of Hunter’s Dr. Helen Remington. While Cronenberg shows genitals elsewhere in the film, this scene removes any of the sexiness that could be associated with full frontal nudity. In this scene, all that remains is a disgusting facsimile of a naked genital. Here, nudity becomes monstrous.
While Crash is Cronenberg’s most sexual film and thus the best demonstration of his form of ugly nudity, his other films demonstrate similar repulsion to the naked body. For example, in his most recent film, Maps to the Stars, Julianne Moore’s aging movie star, Havana, engages in a threesome with an actor friend (Jonathan Watton) and a young model. It’s the only moment of explicit nudity in the film and it’s hideous. As Moore and the young model writhe around on the bed, Watton’s actor disengages to take a phone call and sits in a recliner, masturbating to the sight of the women while discussing work with a colleague. The scene is meant to demonstrate the pervasive sexism of the Hollywood system, that sees Moore’s Havana peddle her body in a bid to attract a role alongside Watton’s movie star. It also shatters the illusion of Hollywood trysts, showing them to be coarsely economic and soulless.
The ugliness of nudity in Cronenberg’s films is also often connected to the danger that nudity signals. In Cronenberg’s breakout feature, Shivers, tenants of a high-rise apartment become infected with parasites that turn them into hypersexual lunatics. Once infected, the characters shed their clothes and openly engage in sexual activities throughout the building. The effectiveness of the parasite is directly connected to its manipulation of sexuality and nudity. For instance, not only does the parasite use nudity to attract victims, it also takes advantage of the vulnerability of the naked victim. When people are naked, they cannot defend themselves.
Thus, Shivers is the most obvious demonstration of the danger of nudity in the films of David Cronenberg, but it’s not the only one. Eastern Promises, starring Viggo Mortensen as a Russian gangster in London, embodies the vulnerability of nudity better than most any film. The film’s standout moment comes after Mortensen has gone to a bathhouse after receiving ritualistic mob tattoos. While naked in the steam room in nothing but a towel, assailants try to kill him. Mortensen fends them off, bashing their heads in on the tile floor and using their knives against them. He survives, but barely. His nudity handicapped him. For Cronenberg, nudity is dangerous whether it’s the victim nude or the assailant. It’s a trap either way.
Rabid also takes advantage of the danger of nudity. The film follows a woman (Marilyn Chambers) who becomes a vampiric monster after a car accident and uses a phallic stinger under her armpit to infect her prey. Like Shivers, Rabid shows how the sexual appeal of nudity becomes a weapon. Chamber’s beauty and seductive appeal lure her victims. Her naked body is both alluring and deadly. Rabid is another example of Cronenberg depicting the danger of nudity.
Rabid also demonstrates how Cronenberg views nudity as unnatural. Cronenberg is not a naturalist. Characters are not liberated when they disrobe. He’s also not a pornographer, as nudity is about more than sexual objectification. But neither is he a humanist. When his characters are naked, it’s not a means of exploring their emotional fragility. Mostly, it’s a means of showing their monstrosity, either mentally or physically. For Cronenberg, nudity becomes unnatural.
In films like Rabid and Shivers, nudity represents infection. A naked body is a sick body. Nudity does not show humanity in its natural state, but instead, in its corrupted state. In films like Crash and Maps to the Stars, nudity is also unnatural as it demonstrates corrupted psychology. The characters get naked in order to further harmful proclivities. Thus, each naked act is a moral and psychological descension.
The most obvious examples of unnatural nudity are in Cronenberg’s body horror films. In The Fly, Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle accidentally melds himself with a fly during a transporter experiment. He gains superhuman abilities, but he also begins to metamorphosize into a fly-human hybrid, the Brundlefly. As Seth becomes more Brundlefly, he becomes more naked. At first, his shirt is merely undone, as when he goes to a bar and snaps a man’s arm in half during an armwrestling match. Later, he sheds the shirt altogether when he starts to grow wings on his back and shed his nails and hair. Finally, when he’s completely the Brundlefly, he nakedly hides in the rafters of his warehouse apartment. In The Fly, nudity charts Seth’s unnatural evolution.
Cronenberg takes a similar approach in Videodrome, where sleaze TV producer, Max Renn (James Woods), becomes obsessed with an illegal TV channel showing snuff and porn. Renn soon becomes convinced the channel is beaming a signal into his brain, distorting reality and transforming his body into a VCR-like monstrosity. The nudity and violence on the Videodrome channel attracts Renn. It’s unnatural mode of storytelling hypnotizes him, so to speak. But once the signal invades his brain and transforms him body, Renn becomes more naked and more grotesque. He grows a vulva-like port in his stomach, much like a VHS slot on a VCR, and his hand fuses with a gun he finds inside the port. In Videodrome, Renn’s fascination with sleazy nudity leads to his naked subjugation by the Videodrome channel and the new flesh.
The Brood and Naked Lunch also demonstrate this unnatural nudity. In The Brood, the body of Nola (Samantha Eggers) transforms into an external, udder-like womb due to her psychoplasmic therapy. In Naked Lunch, the fantastical country of Interzone is filled with debauched humans and alien-like Mugwumps. Any instances of nudity are bizarre and unnatural. For Cronenberg, nudity is not humanity’s natural state, but it’s abnormal state. It represents a deep perversion of mind or body.
Nothing in the films of David Cronenberg is healthy: no relationship, no emotion, and certainly no physical body. Thus, it makes perfect sense that his depictions of nudity would be ugly, dangerous, and unnatural—anything but healthy and normal. Cronenberg is a director always fascinated by the abhorrent and grotesque. In his films, if a body is physically normal, it hides psychological trauma and deep perversion. And if it’s not physically normal, its abnormalities embody the individual’s impurities, inside and out.
For Cronenberg, the new flesh is naked and fascinating, but by no means natural.
This article was originally published on the now-defunct Toronto Film Scene.