Crimes of the Future
Written and directed by David Cronenberg
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux and Kristen Stewart
Classification R; 107 minutes
Opens June 3 in select theatres including the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto
David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future is a magnificently dirty movie. Partly because it is set in an undefined era where handwashing is no longer de rigueur – thanks to a quirk in human evolution, pain has become obsolete, infections have vanished and basic hygiene is unfashionable. But mostly, Crimes of the Future is a dirty little thing because it dives deep into the muck of humanity, where Cronenberg finds a perverted pleasure in the absence of pain. Every millimetre of this film is filthy, decayed, polluted. And thank God for that.
Returning to filmmaking after an eight-year hiatus and serious ruminations of retirement, the Canadian icon is at the absolute top of his game here, delivering a work that can be viewed in a multiverse-worth of ways.
Crimes of the Future is a climate-change treatise, a strangled cry against our self-destructive tendency to poison our own environment. But Crimes of the Future is also a defiantly tender love story in which matters of the heart involve other, less traditionally sexy internal organs. It is a darkly hilarious satirical riff on the ineffable power of art in the face of cataclysmic tragedy. It is a self-referential noir-tinged tour through the sicko-cinema Cronenbergian canon, with its obsessions on the limits of both the human body and audiences’ stomachs. It is even a slick in-joke about the perils of producing David Cronenberg movies (there is lots of talk about how artistic success requires “star power” and “shock” value).
Crimes of the Future is all these things and more – but mostly, it is a testament to the twisty, squishy, uncompromising vision of a brilliant filmmaker whose imagination is endless, and endlessly terrifying.
Opening with an act of filicide and closing with a near-apocalyptic turn, Crimes of the Future is not an especially warm movie. But there is a delicious depth to Cronenberg’s pessimism – and even in his world’s darkest, coldest corners, there is comfort. Take the movie’s central relationship, an intensely creative and romantic partnership between performance artists Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and Caprice (Léa Seydoux). Their work aims to showcase the metamorphosis of the human form – which in this film’s reality translates to Saul growing new, seemingly purposeless organs inside his own body, which Caprice then removes in front of a live audience using an autopsy contraption that is half eXistenZ’s game pod/bio-port, half H.R. Giger nightmare fuel. Surgery is the new sex, as one character puts it.
The pair are devoted to one another in skin and spirit, a connection that feels at odds with the decrepit dystopia surrounding them, populated by curious side characters with even more curious agendas. These include the low-level bureaucrats Wippet (Don McKellar) and Timlin (Kristen Stewart) from the National Organ Registry, a secretive agency charged with ensuring that human evolution doesn’t proceed unchecked. There are also the wide-eyed technicians Router (Nadia Litz) and Berst (Tanaya Beatty), who repair Saul and Caprice’s autopsy machines with an erotic giddiness.
Lurking in the shadows, often literally, is the scruffy Lang (Scott Speedman), a purple-candy-bar-munching mystery man who desperately wants Saul and Caprice to cut up the corpse of his young son for reasons that are more nefarious than this sentence can hope to summarize. And I haven’t even touched on the film’s queasiest element, a skeletal machine evoking the shape of Naked Lunch’s Interzone mugwump that either makes the process of eating easier or infinitely more complicated. (Not since eXistenZ’s Chinese restaurant scene has food been so aggressively unappetizing.)
If Cronenberg’s 1983 masterpiece Videodrome heralded the age of “the new flesh,” as its anti-hero Max Renn declared with suicidal devotion, then Crimes of the Future stretches that skin into something more synthetic, dangerous, extinction-level.
Working with long-time collaborators, including production designer Carol Spier and composer Howard Shore, as well as new partners such as cinematographer Douglas Koch and editor Christopher Donaldson (a favourite of Sarah Polley), Cronenberg crafts a world in which chaos and fear are laced with small tendons of hope. It is a ruthlessly meditative film exploding with ideas and mouth-marbling dialogue, but the director and his team create a surreal momentum that keeps it from ever being too philosophically crushing or narratively ponderous. It is as distressing as it is engrossing.
Second from his decision to shoot in Athens instead of Canada – entirely due to financial-subsidy reasons, but with the added aesthetic bonus of being surrounded by the ruins of one civilization to comment on the fall of another – Cronenberg’s best move was casting both familiar faces and fresh, adventurous ones. Mortensen, who has now starred in four Cronenberg pictures, gives an empathetic and wry weariness to Saul, and more than once seems to channel the disarming gentleness of his own director. McKellar, another returning Cronenberg player, is creepily funny as a short-sleeved functionary who is struck by Saul’s celebrity. And fellow Canadians Speedman, Litz and Beatty all slither into Crimes’ environment with ease.
But there is something particularly special about the work from Cronenberg rookies Seydoux and Stewart. While the latter doesn’t appear in the film nearly as much as its marketing suggests, the actress finds her own squeaky-voiced, awkwardly endearing place in this perverted world. And Seydoux, who embodies pure sensuality perhaps more than any working actress today, finds exactly the right physical and emotional contours to complement Mortensen. (The only casting slip-up is Welket Bungué, as a cop from something called the New Vice Unit; the actor has a magnetic presence, but his flat line readings empty the air.)
Ultimately, there is a looping sort of career-spanning chronology to Crimes of the Future. It borrows the title of Cronenberg’s otherwise unrelated 1970 film, but was originally written around the era of eXistenZ (which was the last movie that the director made not based on pre-existing material) and initially titled Painkillers. After sitting in a drawer for two decades, Cronenberg was convinced by regular producer Robert Lantos to revisit the material instead of easing into retirement.
The result is a film that is both a career capstone and a creative resuscitation. Long live Cronenberg’s new flesh. We can rot away together.
Cronenberg’s Cronen-Best: Top Five
1. Crash The greatest argument for the preservation of the Gardiner Expressway ever made, David Cronenberg’s masterpiece is a singular work whose improbability and influence grow with each passing year.
2. Videodrome / eXistenZ If Cronenberg is the father of “body-horror,” a term that I understand he doesn’t care for, then these decades-apart films are his beautifully deformed twin babies: extravagantly gross meditations on the limits of flesh, bone, and the anxieties of our media-warped minds.
3. Dead Ringers From its blood-red surgical robes to its duelling Jeremy Irons performances, there is a deft balance of high-low here that keeps the audience on a dangerous tightrope.
4. A History of Violence If this 2005 thriller’s only contribution to the world was introducing Viggo Mortensen to Cronenberg, then that would be enough. But the film is also a fantastically provocative epic in miniature of the filmmaker’s favoured themes, with two of the most blood-boiling sex scenes ever committed to film.
5. Crimes of the Future See above.
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