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Film Meet the new flesh, same as the old flesh: Why David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ remains a revolting masterpiece

Jennifer Jason Leigh in eXistenZ (1999), directed by David Cronenberg.

Courtesy of the FRL

I’ve started and stopped this essay about the 20th anniversary of David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ more times than is polite to admit.

First, I thought I’d be cute by kicking off an appreciation with a meta-critique of “anniversary pieces" themselves. (Take it from someone who’s seen the metrics: In the dark, roiling sea that is online content, features about the Xth anniversary of films, television series, albums, or novels guarantee big, crashing waves of readers. Ten years is good, but 20 or 25 are even better.) Then I thought I’d take the obvious route and highlight eXistenZ as one of the many worthy movies to come out in 1999, the year when Everything Changed. After realizing that I’d done that in two separate columns already, I pivoted to praising Cronenberg’s Nostradamus-like sensibilities, which felt more alive just ahead of Y2K than ever before, or ever since.

It all seemed false. Not because any of the above is untrue, but because eXistenZ deserves more than a drive-by critical parsing. If there is one film that can be pulled out of both the cultural timeline and Cronenberg’s own filmography to act as a Rosetta stone to each, it is eXistenZ. If there is any one film that offers a sharp argument against the current direction of modern entertainment, it is eXistenZ. And if there is any one film that is so clear-eyed in its resolve to be exactly what its director wants it to be, with no compromises, it is eXistenZ. You know, that movie where Jennifer Jason Leigh penetrates Jude Law with a video-game controller, and in which a key scene revolves around the construction of a “gristle gun,” a weapon forged of bone and flesh, which shoots teeth as bullets. Stick with me.

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Cronenberg’s film, which employs his first screenplay since 1983′s thematically similar Videodrome and marks the last script he’s written not based on pre-existing material, imagines a future where video game systems have been upgraded to organic “game pods,” with the consoles connected to players' spines via “bio-ports.” The titan of this industry is Allegra Geller (Leigh), whose company assembles a focus group to test her latest product, also called eXistenZ. Quickly, anti-gaming terrorists (calling themselves “Realists”) attack the event, and Allegra is forced to flee with her meek security guard Ted Pikul (Law), and save her game by playing it.

eXistenZ being a Cronenberg production, the narrative is trickier than any quick synopsis can justify, and frequently serves as a mere bio-port-enhanced spine to a larger, layered thesis on humankind’s many insatiable appetites. Allegra and Ted are deliberately sketched as mysterious and confounding figures throughout – and a final twist-within-a-twist seems thrown in by the director to only sow further confusion, not patch up any plot holes. But if the heroes' actions never make much narrative or even moral sense, it is because Cronenberg is projecting his own confusion and disgust at their motivations, and how sour the societal landscape has become.

It would be just this side of precious to call eXistenZ a diseased film, but there is a sickness to it which also feels like a cure. eXistenZ is not an easy or coherent film, but it is consistently healthy in its revolt and anger, pulsating and throbbing much like the bio-pods that have so seduced its fictional world’s citizenry. (Videodrome’s rallying cry of, “Long live the new flesh!" seems like both a warning and endorsement for everything on display here.)

Upon its release in April, 1999, eXistenZ was greeted as an annoyance – a best-of collection of Cronenberg body-horror curiosities that he’d been peddling since 1970′s Crimes of the Future. The Globe and Mail’s Rick Groen called the premise “stale … the parts are fine, but they just don’t sum up to anything special.” Many U.S. critics pointed out its themes felt inferior when stacked next to the year’s other, more palatable is-this-real-life-or-is-this-fantasy film, The Matrix. Its stylized title didn’t help matters (it is annoying as hell to type out). And it was so very gross.

But there is more to be gained revisiting eXistenZ than almost any other film of the era.

Although little of its ethnically unethical “Chinese restaurant” scene might pass by unnoticed today – then again, the Coen brothers were able to gallop straight into “savage Indian” territory with last year’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, so who knows – the film feels as fresh (that is, intentionally rotten) now as it did two decades ago.

Part of that is the tactile ick of eXistenZ, and the obvious delight that Cronenberg displays in getting his hands dirty, without the aid of much CGI. Mostly, though, it is Cronenberg’s unique and enviable ability to race ahead of the culture, to not just predict what viciousness we’re destined to wrought upon ourselves, but to also wrestle with every ramification. It is as if the director is engaged in a long and vigorous debate with a two-decades-on version of himself, with no clear winner. EXistenZ is as provoking and shots-fired a movie as the 1990s ever offered – even if, or exactly because, its weapon of choice was a gun made of gristle.

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EXistenZ screens Feb. 6, 8:40 p.m., at the TIFF Lightbox as part of its 1999: Movies at the Millennium series (tiff.net)

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