David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future is based on a script he wrote near the end of the 90’s, and in some ways feels like a distinct product of that time. In other ways, it feels like a new period for the director after his deviances from body horror like A History of Violence (2005), Eastern Promises (2007), and Maps to the Stars (2014). But I think what’s going on here is Cronenberg bringing a new maturity gained from those works back to the genre he started in and ,in so many ways, pioneered.
Crimes of the Future portends a reality where a disorder called Accelerated Evolution Syndrome (ADS) causes unique new organs to grow inside performance artist Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen). Tenser is both artist and canvas, maker and medium. His partner Caprice (Lea Seydoux) is perhaps the real performer, extracting these organs with the grace that only a surgeon possesses as Tenser lays prone in a high-tech pod, making literal the term ‘operating theatre’. Elsewhere, an insurgent movement produces wholly-artificial “candy” bars made of an unnatural purple plastic, which only a select few can digest and which are fatal to others. It’s perhaps a thinly-veiled metaphor for the increasingly processed and artificial nature of our diets, and admittedly this might be my own neuroses talking but, they look pretty good to me. Then again, I’ve eaten Cheetos.
This is a reality where physical pain has been all but eradicated, and in which home surgery and body modification is as easy as it is to do as home repairs, guided by online videos. But there’s “regulation”, see, in the form of a hapless and underworked pair of bureaucrats from the National Organ Registry named Timlin (Kristen Stewart) and Wippet (Don McKellar) who work in a crummy office, even by this film’s standards. Timlin is infatuated with both the idea and the reality of Tenser’s malleable body,
It’s a world where once-sensual acts like eating or fucking are recontextualized in revolting form. For the wealthy, food composed of various pastes is consumed in a twisted, skeletal machine called a Breakfaster, which violently agitates it’s user to promote digestion. What should be a passionate kiss seems awkward and inelegant, Caster admitting, “I’m not good at the old sex,” as he pulls away. Only surgery and body modification are presented with beauty and a tenderness that makes the film’s most provocative scene even more disturbing.
It’s clear that his actors – Cronenberg mainstays like Mortensen and Kristen Stewart, as well as actors like McKellar, Nadia Litz, and Scott Speedman who feel like they should’ve been Cronenberg regulars long ago – are barely containing their glee at what they’re given to work with. And Lea Seydoux is out here quietly stealing every scene she’s in, grabbing the film’s anchor role right out of Viggo’s gnarled hands. It’s Seydoux’s Caprice that forms the film’s true centre, relegating Mortensen’s Saul to sentient, urging canvas while she’s the one holding the brush, or scalpel in this case. Even when it feels like Saul is manipulating things behind the scenes, there’s a push-pull of control at play between him, Caprice, and the mysterious group that seeks to use Tenser to bring forth a new stage of evolution. All this seems to call into question the relationships between art, artists, and audience.
So too is Cronenberg looking inward to his own work, tingeing the hyper-serious and stomach-churning body horror of his work in the 90’s with an ultra-modern ironic distance to it all, a willingness to be playful that typifies a master’s steady hand at work. He knows what he’s doing, even if no one else – even his cast – does. I think this is because, at it’s core, Crimes of the Future is an intensely personal story about an artist facing down the denouement of his creative life. Tenser’s given nearly everything to his performances and lies, dying on a table in front of everyone. He questions whether he has any agency over the creative process at all, whether he even is an artist. Does the canvas inform the painting? He’s just lying here growing organs for Caprice to carve out, and has no control whatsoever of what she’ll find. His body just grows things without any real input from him.
With early reports that Crimes of the Future had earned both walkouts and an extended standing ovation at Cannes, I’m most inclined to think that the film lies somewhere in the middle. For one thing, even if you’re turned off by the content I’m sure you’ll find scenes here that are close to objectively beautiful, and there are moments and ideas that feel like indelible additions to the Cronenberg ouvre. Other times you get the sense that he’s “just” playing the hits here. The Giger-esque biomechanical creations feel like set pieces lifted wholesale from Existenz, and the hyper-sexualization of wounds and incisions from Crash. Certainly there are shades of Alien and Brazil at play as well. But maybe that’s not a bad thing, since all those movies are great, both in spite and because of the distance we have from them. If Crimes of the Future comes out when Cronenberg finishes the script at the end of the twentieth century, I think it hits real different, and with far less impact. As it is, Crimes of the Future is a master director examining his work with fresh eyes, violently shaking it into something with a new complexity. You’re probably not ready for David Cronenberg’s most encapsulating, and somehow his funniest movie of the year. But you should be.
Crimes of the Future is currently in theatres. Expect a wider release on June 10 from NEON.