Crimes of the Future review David Cronenberg

Cronenberg indulges body-horror sci-fi obsessions in the surprisingly funny Crimes of the Future

“Once again, Cronenberg rearticulates the thesis of many of his films: If you change the body, you change the world.”

Crimes of the Future review

There is no director who better captures a sense of digital rot than David Cronenberg. In his cinema, the interactions of technology and bodies push the boundaries of the human form to create a new taxonomy of the body. Crimes of the Future, Cronenberg’s first feature in eight years and his first developed from an original script since 1999’s eXistenZ, takes this obsession to its sublime apotheosis. The film stages a gleeful fracturing of the human body: its vestigial growths, and the bureaucratic attempts to regulate them. 

Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) is a famous performance artist who lives and works with his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux), a former trauma surgeon. Their performances require tremendous preparation and work — the work of growing a new organ that Caprice then tattoos from the inside and removes in a public performance. Their show has attracted the attention of Wippet (Don McKellar) and his assistant Timlin (Kristen Stewart) at the National Organ Registry. The organs, Wippet explains, present an evolutionary quandary. If these new vestigial organs establish themselves genetically and are passed on, how will the category of the human be preserved? In the opening scene, a mother discovers that her boy has a taste for plastic. His odd diet is later revealed to be caused by a mutation that allows him to digest synthetic matter. The fact of his birth threatens a critical shift in the human genome. And his death at the hands of his mother reveals a fear of transhumanity that even maternal love cannot vanquish. Once again, Cronenberg rearticulates the thesis of many of his films: if you change the body, you change the world. 

The details of the film’s setting are fuzzy. Location and time period are unknown, but we find out early in the film that in this reality, pain has been mostly eradicated. The performance art that Saul and Caprice perform, then, is not like the performance of self-harm popularised by artists like Marina Abromovic and Chris Burden. Saul and Caprice are in the art of bodily creation and extraction. As Timlin says in response to accusations that Tenser is “just a glorified organ donor,” Tenser’s art is a question of will: “He wills these new organs to grow.” 

Although the film was shot in Greece, the country to which the National Organ Registry belongs is never specified. The characters waft through dark rooms and decrepit cement homes. Shipwrecked boats appear as backdrops throughout the film, hinting at an economic collapse. If the flows of capital and global trade have come to a stop, what remains? Performance art? Despite the film’s post-capital ambiance, how Saul and Caprice make a living is never made clear. Has money been eradicated along with pain? 

As rich and intriguing as Crimes of the Future is, the performances in the film are uneven. Viggo Mortensen is feeble and mysterious as Saul Tenser. Draped in all black, he looks like a Black Rider from The Lord of the Rings on osteoporosis medication. When he doesn’t choke on his words, he sounds hoarse. His words are imbued with the melancholic edge of someone who’s seen it all and is growing tired. Kristen Stewart however, delivers a distractingly mannered performance. She plays Timlin as an intense and nervous bureaucrat who rushes through lines as if eager to get them over with. The result is a performance that feels dislodged from the rest of the film and its characters. On the other hand, Seydoux and Mortensen’s chemistry conjures scenes of tender passion and caring secrecy. Perhaps Cronenberg is more of a romantic than we give him credit for.

It would be easy to imagine Saul as a kind of surrogate for Cronenberg himself, whose films are like organs waiting to be freed from their constraints. As someone in the film describes Saul Tenser, Cronenerg too is an “artist of the inner landscape.” In Crimes of the Future, identity is a conflict of the insides. It is tattooed onto the organ and comes to represent the surface of the body. How can we tell humans apart from the “evolutionary deranged” without looking inside? What’s a functional body without functional organs? And what happens when the body develops a mind of its own?

As morbid and stomach-churning as the film can be, a laugh is never far from a squirm. Cronenberg’s dry wit surfaces at every corner. Turns of phrase and neat quips add levity and deepen the film’s many ideas. Unbeknownst to Caprice, Saul Tenser reports to a cop (Welket Bungué) at the New Vice Unit to whom he recounts his meetings with Dr. Nasatir (Yorgos Pirpassopoulos), a superfan who insists that Tenser and his accelerated growths enter the “Inner Beauty Pageant.” The category? “Best Original Organ.” The film may leave some threads hanging and some character motivations underdeveloped, but in less than two hours Cronenberg takes such delight in his macabre creation that it more than makes up for it. ■

Crimes of the Future, directed by David Cronenberg

Crimes of the Future opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, June 3.

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