CRIMES OF THE FUTURE: A Review Of David Cronenberg’s New Film

CRIMES OF THE FUTURE: A Review Of David Cronenberg’s New Film – Cinema Scholars


David Cronenberg is an acquired taste. He always has been, and not because of the often transgressive nature of his subject matter. The cold, stilted performances. The freshman year philosophy class dialogue. The almost defiant framing of scenes to be as objective and unglamorous as possible (all wides and two-shots, little dynamic lighting when not necessary). These have become staples of his personal style.
Cronenberg made a name for himself in the world of body horror with early thrillers like The Brood (1979). He then began to transition into more cerebral, high-brow fare with 1996’s acclaimed (and controversial) Crash. This trend fully culminated in 2005’s A History of Violence. This would be his first outing with frequent collaborator Viggo Mortensen. Now, the director has returned to his roots with Crimes of the Future, a chilly, ponderous, sometimes nasty sci-fi drama that just had its world premiere at Cannes.


In the not-so-distant future, humans have evolved past the need to feel physical pain. Thus, creating a world of fetishized body violence. At the center of the story are performance artist Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and his girlfriend, Caprice (Lea Seydoux). Saul suffers from Accelerated Evolution Syndrome, a condition where he has begun growing new and unique organs. As part of their performances, Caprice performs live surgery on Saul in front of a beguiled audience. She removes the malignant body parts that eventually grow back. For her, it’s symbolic, giving meaning to the body and physical reality. For him, it is a rebellion against nature. It’s also a middle finger to a biological process. The result is he is being pulled away from humanity and pushed towards something new.
The couples’ exploits attract the attention of the National Organ Registry. It’s a nascent operation that’s spearheaded by the bureaucratic Wippet (Don McKellar) and his timid, repressed assistant, Timlin (Kristen Stewart). Wippet sees Saul’s accelerated evolution as an ailment to postpone medical intervention. Timlin, meanwhile, grows fascinated with Saul after watching a live performance. He boldly declares that “surgery is the new sex.”
Meanwhile, in a concurrent but ultimately related storyline, a young boy is murdered by his mother. This is after he develops an insatiable appetite for plastics and other synthetic materials. We eventually learn he is not alone when Saul crosses paths with a strange subculture of plastic eaters. They fashion themselves as freedom fighters against an oppressive state that views them as freaks. Could it be that this is the new stage in human evolution? A desire for synthetics in order to better adapt to an increasingly synthetic world?
Lea Seydoux stars in “Crimes of the Future”


Much could be read into Crimes of the Future as an allegory. Climate change, for one, in relation to the aforementioned plastic eaters and the government’s reactionary pushback against the inevitable evolution of human biology. And of course the state’s stranglehold over bodily autonomy. Most notably, however, the film seems to be a commentary on the artist’s eternal dilemma, doomed to spend life searching for and creating meaning out of pain (or lack thereof).
Saul very much seems like an autobiographical stand-in for Cronenberg. In a pivotal scene, he goes to view a fellow performance artist’s piece, a modern dancer who has sewn his eyes and lips shut and fashioned ears all over his body. It is an audacious, disturbing image and was one of the most eye-grabbing stills from the film’s trailer. By contrast, in-movie the performer is met with a tepid response. He’s a better dancer than a conceptual artist, one spectator proclaims. Very style over substance.
In a way it seems this is Cronenberg’s statement against other, newer artists who have copped his style in the most superficial terms, focusing on the sterile shock value without any of his signature meditations on themes of reality, identity, and technology, or mortality. It is also a clever admonishment against a more casual audience, lured in by the promise of prurient body horror thrills only to be met by a film that is much more understated and quietly contemplative than they would expect.
This movie won’t be for everyone. The subject matter is dense and the dialogue expository. There is a lot of world-building to complete in a short amount of time, and some loose threads are never tied up. In fact, it feels as if the film’s third act is simply lopped off like an unwanted body part. Cronenberg seems to delight in giving the viewer a hard time. Many parallels have been drawn between him and fellow auteur David Lynch for this reason, though Lynch’s oeuvre is more emotional dream logic, rather than the icy philosophical pondering of Cronenberg’s.
Lea Seydoux, Viggo Mortensen, and Kristen Stewart in a scene from “Crimes of the Future”


The cast is excellent. Mortensen has been a Cronenberg muse since A History of Violence, and Seydoux fits perfectly into his world as well, all icy glares and cool arthouse trappings. It is Kristen Stewart, however, who really steals the show with her small role. She subverts any expectation one might have had about her being cast as a dystopian femme fatale and is instead presented as an awkward, cloistered, erotically neurotic bureaucratic pencil pusher. In Cronenberg, she has finally found a director whose style perfectly aligns with her twitchy, nervous energy, and it would be neat to see what she could do with a larger role in a future film of his.


It will be interesting to see, once the dust has settled, where cinephiles and Cronenberg acolytes place Crimes of the Future in their ranking of the director’s work. It seems likely many viewers will see his return to body horror as a regression, a retreading of old ground, while others will see it as an evolution and an expansion on many of the themes that have defined his filmography.
It’s useful to view it in the context of his seminal work Videodrome, a movie that presented a bleak and nihilistic view of the future and technology and gave cult film fans the infamous phrase “Long Live The New Flesh”. But Videodrome (1983) was a fearful rumination on the excess of mass media entertainment, where the protagonist is mutated and annihilated by his exposure to sinister forces at play. Crimes of the Future almost feels like an inversion of this, where the protagonist undergoes a bodily mutation that, while maybe not explicitly positive, could be viewed as a natural and potentially optimistic step towards the future. Long Live The New Sex.

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