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David Cronenberg’s Consumed and Maps to the Stars

David Cronenberg, Maps to the Stars, 2014, digital video, color, sound, 111 minutes. Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack).

THE AMUSE-BOUCHE that arrives just after the opening of Consumed, David Cronenberg’s hilariously oral first novel (just out from Scribner), is an assortment of tooth-marked body parts that once belonged to Célestine Arosteguy, half of France’s most celebrated philosopher couple. Her husband, Aristide Arosteguy, is suspected of having murdered her, since these leftovers were discovered in their apartment and Aristide is nowhere to be found. Or so it has been reported. On TV, the building’s cleaning woman opines that the act was a mercy killing, that Mme Arosteguy was dying of a brain tumor, the result of thinking so much, and that her husband complied with her wish that he put her out of her misery. “And then, of course, yes, he ate her. . . . He could not just leave her there. . . . He wanted to take as much of her with him as he could. So he ate her, and then he ran away with her inside him.”

I was on the subway when I read that unruffled analysis of the grotesque scenario,and my gleeful cackle captured the attention of my fellow riders. “Good book?” asked a young man looming above me. Seeing the author’s name in large letters on the cover, he quickly added, “Is that the guy who made the exploding-heads movie?” “Fabulous so far,” I replied, “and yes, he is the one who made Scanners.” (The recently released Criterion Blu-ray of the 1981 psycho-horror dramedy includes a demo of the brain-splatter effect.)

If you’ve been longing for the Cronenberg who was the master of body horror, missing in action since eXistenZ (1999), he’s resurrected himself by transferring the focus of his imagination—exuberant, freely associative, taboo crushing, never more logical than when completely surreal—from movies to literature, a shift facilitated, no doubt, by the glaring fact that whether composed of printed words or of images and sounds, the projections of one’s psyche and the psyches of others have become readily available mash-ups on whatever digital screen is at hand. Indeed, the reshaped cyberpsyche is the narrative motor of Consumed. As a young man, Cronenberg considered writing fiction but was intimidated by modern literary giants, among them Nabokov and Burroughs, who preside in absentia over the pages of his debut novel. Instead, he found an open patch in the landscape of the movies, where his hybridization of the visceral and the cerebral could flourish. Consumed partakes of the full menu of interests and obsessions that have long fed Cronenberg’s cinema—the interpenetration of mind and body and of flesh and technology, the irony of mortality, the fear of being controlled by forces hovering on the brink of comprehension—an absurdist vision seesawing between comedy and tragedy.

In Consumed, this project is articulated with more verve, wit, and abandon than in Cronenberg’s films after A History of Violence (2005), which have been burdened by source material or scripts written by others to whom the director inexplicably feels obligated. That is the case with his latest film, Maps to the Stars, currently making the festival rounds. A devastating depiction of narcissistic isolation and rage, Maps could have been located anywhere ruled by selfies. Bruce Wagner’s script, however, is set in Hollywood, a choice so hoary that it’s amazing the film has the effect of a one-two punch to head and gut. Consumed, however, returns to the Cronenberg-authored eXistenZ, ending with a question not unlike the one which closes that film: “Are we still in the game?” An even more vertiginous field of uncertainty, the novel is thoroughly mediated by the unreliable points of view of multiple characters and the transformational possibilities of the digital technology referenced on every page. The very embodiment of Freud’s theory of the primary processes of the unconscious—condensation and displacement—the narrative of Consumed is an endlessly metastasizing, collective anxiety dream that opens out from and collapses in on Célestine’s possibly cannibalized body: more specifically, her problematic left breast, around which a bevy of malfunctioning, misshapen, and diseased penises circulate.

There are many avenues into this deliriously dire novel, but as a woman of a certain age, I am drawn to the figure of Célestine. Despite a series of grisly (yet not altogether convincing) photos depicting Aristide and two of his and Célestine’s former students and bedmates chomping on her corpse, one comes to suspect that Célestine may be living in Pyongyang, with at least her right breast intact. As for the possibly missing left one, did she have it removed because she believed insects were crawling around inside it, getting ready to migrate to her brain? And did this somatization result from her being on a jury at the Cannes Film Festival, where she saw a North Korean movie titled The Judicious Use of Insects, which she was certain was actually made by another of her former students, who was sending her a secret message that he had been kidnapped by the movie-mad Kim Jong-il? Or—the first thought to cross the mind of any reader who knows the statistics—was this fetishized, insect-filled breast a substitute and a shield for an all-consuming anxiety about breast cancer that might well give one nightmares? Body horror is all the more horrifying when it is simply words on a page.

Maps to the Stars makes its US debut at the New York Film Festival, where it screens September 27 and 28.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.