No Holes Barred: Sexual Pleasure and the Cronenberg Male

by: Kevin Sparrow

Note: This piece was originally published on Go Over the Rainbow and has been re-posted with the permission of their editors. You can find the original here.

“Men have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent…they would have no difficulty exterminating one another to the last man,” noted the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. Freud’s work was controversial for its unapologetic attitude toward the study of sexuality. The contradiction of rigid science–yielding cynical statements like that above–and the study of human sexual behavior draws us to Freud and his theories. It is also a major principle of the work of director David Cronenberg.

Aptly, Cronenberg’s most recent film, A Dangerous Method (2011), explores Freud, his milieu and psychoanalysis, through a lens of public disassociation and alienation. The fluidity of sexuality in Cronenberg’s characters resonates for me as a queer person precisely because it is often met with societal disapproval. Bisexuality, transgender expression and non-normative sexual appetites are presented as integral aspects of the characters’ identities and help inform the artist’s statement to a larger society. Cronenberg plots are driven by characters who are either rejecting their queer behavior or facing external oppression. This defining characteristic allows a wider spectrum of audience to enjoy Cronenberg’s work.

From early in his career, Cronenberg has been interested in queer sexuality, but Cronenberg realized bisexuality–more accurately, pansexuality–with great empathy in his adaptation of the J.G. Ballard novel, Crash, in 1996. Sexuality runs a spectrum, and what arouses us as erotic beings is portrayed as an immutable aspect of identity; gender is not the consideration Cronenberg drives at, however. Gender is unimportant to the inhabitants of Crash‘s Toronto, the only glue connecting them is a shared sexual expression; that being a fetishization of car crashes.

From their very first encounter, James Ballard (James Spader) and Vaughan (Elias Koteas) have a palpable sexual tension that continues throughout the film in subtle and obvious displays. The matter-of-factness of their eventual pairing–foreshadowed in the car wash scene where Ballard watches Vaughan have sex with his wife (Deborah Kara Unger)–demonstrates that there isn’t a barrier of gender for Ballard and Vaughan. They bond sexually over the same source of arousal, and the identity as a straight, gay or bi man is superfluous at that wellspring.

Fluidity of attraction is a minor motif compared to the fluidity of the body presented in Cronenberg’s oeuvre. And that’s not just in terms of melting faces, molting torsos and breeding from atypical anatomy. In Naked Lunch (1991), the rejection of women, which has much to do with Gonzo novel author William Burroughs’ actual experience, is explicitly realized in visual terms in the early third and climax of the film. After a hallucination of a bug telling him to kill his wife, Bill Lee (Peter Weller), addicted to psychoactive “bug powder,” visits Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider) to find a cure, but is only given a substitute powder. Following the visit, Lee shoots his wife (Judy Davis) dead. Lee’s growing dementia takes him on a strange journey to South America where he eventually encounters a male doppelganger of his wife, Fadela (Monique Mercure), the ostensible leader of a bug-meat conspiracy to drug the mass populace. The final turning point of the film is when Fadela peels away her female skin to reveal the man beneath: Dr. Benway.

As often as the fluid identities of sexual expression and gender are depicted in Cronenberg’s work, he goes one step further to show how internal homophobia and external oppression cause the horror his characters endure. In Videodrome (1983), Max Renn’s (James Woods) rejection of “the new flesh” visualized as a gynecological growth in his abdomen, suggesting not only a revision of flesh but of gender–causes his self-destruction. Vincent Cassel’s Kirill in Eastern Promises (2007) denies the possibility of his own homosexuality and projects (in the Freudian sense) that anxiety onto Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen); his need to prove his heterosexuality in extreme ways is a detailed contributor to his bitterness and cruelty. Kirill’s behavior is driven by his desire to please his father, thus conforming sexually is equally important to performing the Russian mafia duties he has inherited.

These physical manifestaions of sexual neurosis in Cronenberg’s films may be realized best in A Dangerous Method, which develops a similar but more malignant end-result of sexual repression: psychosis. Cronenberg’s synthesis of different source material here strongly highlights the conceit that the dangerous method described is less to do with Jung’s handling of his patient–though spanking should always be done with care–and more to do with the underlying use of sexual repression by civilized society as a mechanism for control, one that subjugates women and “sexual deviants.”

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