Crimes of the Future
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux and Kristen Stewart, David Cronenberg’s long-awaited new body-horror gem is as seductive as it is sinister — and enthralling.
August 18, 2022
It takes a brave filmmaker to see cancer and climate change, and think of art, evolution and eroticism in a possible future. It takes a bold director to have a character proclaim that "surgery is the new sex", too. David Cronenberg has always been that kind of visionary, even before doing all of the above in his sublime latest release — and having the Scanners, Videodrome and The Fly helmer back on his body-horror bent for the first time in more than two decades is exactly the wild and weird dream that cinephiles want it to be. The Canadian auteur makes his first movie at all since 2014's Maps to the Stars, in fact, and this tale of pleasure and pain is as Cronenbergian as anything can be. He borrows Crimes of the Future's title from his second-ever feature dating back 50-plus years, brings all of his corporeal fascinations to the fore, and moulds a viscerally and cerebrally mesmerising film that it feels like he's always been working towards. Long live the new flesh, again. Long live the old Cronenberg as well.
In this portrait of a potential time to come, the human body has undergone two significant changes. Three, perhaps, as glimpsed in a disquieting opening where an eight-year-old called Brecken (debutant Sotiris Siozos) snacks on a plastic bin, and is then murdered by his mother Djuna (Lihi Kornowski, Ballistic). That incident isn't unimportant, but Crimes of the Future has other departures from today's status quo to carve into — and they're equally absorbing. Physical agony has disappeared, creating a trade in "desktop surgery" as performance art. Also, a condition dubbed Accelerated Evolution Syndrome causes some folks, such as artist Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen, Thirteen Lives), to grow abnormal organs. These tumours are removed and tattooed in avant-garde shows by his doctor/lover Caprice (Léa Seydoux, No Time to Die), then catalogued by the National Organ Register's Wippit (Don McKellar, reteaming with Cronenberg after eXistenZ) and Timlin (Kristen Stewart, Spencer).
When Crimes of the Future stages one of Saul and Caprice's gigs, it drips not with blood but spectacle and seduction. Indeed, it's no wonder that a curious Timlin utters that catchy observation about medical slicing and intimate arousal shortly afterwards. Alluring, eerie, grotesque and enthralling — and the epitome of the feature's sparse yet entrancing look and mood in the process — it's a powerhouse of a scene, with a self-autopsy pod at its centre. Saul lies still, Caprice uses an eXistenZ-esque fleshy video-game controller to get the contraption cutting, and an enraptured audience hang on every incision. Saul and Caprice do, too, although their visibly aroused reactions have nothing on their time later in the suite alone. (Cronenberg does love eschewing traditional ideas about what titillates; see also: his 1996 film Crash, about characters excited by car crashes. It's a clear precursor to this, and the movie that purred so that 2021 Palme d'Or winner Titane, by filmmaker Julia Ducournau, could rev.)
Crimes of the Future's scalpel-equipped coffin is just one of Saul and Caprice's Lifeform Ware gadgets; if eXistenZ, Naked Lunch and Dead Ringers procreated, these are the devices the three flicks would spawn. HR Giger could've conjured them up as well, and thinking of the biomechanical artist's contribution to Alien, which saw him share an Oscar for visual effects, is as natural as feeling spellbound and perturbed by Cronenberg's movie in unison. This is a grimy world where a bed covered with skin and tentacles floats in Saul's home, calibrated to cater to his "designer cancer"-riddled body's needs as it slumbers — and where a chair that looks like a skeleton reassembled as furniture contorts Saul as he's eating, something he is having increasing trouble with otherwise. In other words, it's a world where the old flesh isn't doing what it always has, new flesh is sprouting in a changing and devastated reality, and technology fills in the gaps as it is always designed to.
Is Crimes of the Future a Cronenbergian nightmare painted using tools of horror as a brush, just as Caprice uses the autopsy bed as hers? Is it a probing and penetrating pondering of what lies in store on this planet of ours, where machinery keeps progressing, the environment continues to be pushed to its limits, and human bodies are in a state of metamorphosis? The answer: it's both, just as it's sensual and sinister — and, story-wise and thematically, there's still more to come. Writing as well as directing, Cronenberg works with his own original ideas for the first time since the constantly relevant eXistenZ, and doesn't stop questioning what physical, emotional, intellectual and psychological mutations may await humanity. Unsurprisingly, in a script he penned back in 1999, what he posits is bleak — his sci-fi body-horror visions always are — and thoroughly riveting.
Connecting the dots, Cronenberg brings Brecken's plight into Saul and Caprice's life via a request by the shadowy Lang (Scott Speedman, Best Sellers), the boy's father, for a public autopsy. The feature has Saul carrying out missions for a detective (Welket Bengué, Berlin Alexanderplatz), and sees a pair of Lifeform Ware technicians (Yellowstone's Tanaya Beatty and Private Eyes' Nadia Litz) hovering around. Plus, Crimes of the Future spans an Inner Beauty Contest, with a zipper inserted in Saul's stomach for the occasion, which Caprice licks in the film's most carnally salacious moment. If Cronenberg's name hadn't already been adapted to describe his aesthetic, fascinations and narratives, it would be based on this movie. Actually, the filmmaker takes it back. He's shared the term with a raft of imitators, but no one holds a blade to Cronenberg at his best. Well, one fellow director comes close: his son Brandon, whose Antiviral and Possessor couldn't be more worthy of the family moniker.
Crimes of the Future is an art-world and celebrity satire among everything else — when artists modifying bodies become stars, as happens here, how can it not be? And, joining the list, it's as strong an example there is of Cronenberg's masterful ability to use the instruments at his disposal to bring disturbing but enticing musings to a stunning fruition. There isn't a misstep among his cast, including his cloaked-up A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method star Mortensen oozing vulnerability and looking like death (a The Seventh Seal-style figure, to be exact); Seydoux serving up a picture of slinky passion; and Stewart delivering a delightfully nervy supporting turn. Every shot lensed by Douglas Koch (Funny Boy) exudes a ravaged air in multiple ways, and the score by Cronenberg's usual composer Howard Shore is devilishly menacing. Surrendering to their skills, and to Crimes of the Future's thrills, proves just like evolution: inescapable.
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