Crimes of the Future will go down in history as my first David Cronenberg film. The film had its premiere at the 75th edition of the Festival de Cannes. Some critics have hyped it as another appalling creation from the mind of the King of Venereal Horror. Other reactions to Cronenberg’s 22nd movie are more mixed, or claim the contrary. Nevertheless, if one thing is certain, it’s that Crimes of the Future begs us to ask: How radical are you?
Cronenberg’s latest explores humanity as it adapts to a synthetic environment, with new transformations and mutations. Alongside his partner, Caprice (Léa Seydoux), the celebrity performance artist Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) showcases the metamorphosis of his organs in avant-garde performances.
Crimes of the Future blends realism seamlessly with imaginative elements, creating a futuristic environment. Its world-building is limited to an unidentified location, yet because Cronenberg’s paints are both natural and synthetic, the film’s setting feels as real as the skin you live in. It is not unlike the recent worlds we’ve seen in, for example, Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, but Crimes of the Future is self-contained within a humble scale.
The movie is essentially a look into the way the human body has evolved, but not for the better. People are falling victims to rapid biological growth within their bodies. This includes new organs, unheard-of hormones, and even the consumption of plastic and other synthetic materials. Some humans have also lost the ability to feel pain. This gives way to acts of surgery and self-harm as a gateway for performance art. Others, like Saul Tenser, have gone as far as tattooing their organs. The ability to pull internal organs out of their bodies like unwanted grey hairs gives these artists a sense of ownership – and turns them into expendable art pieces.
Crimes of the Future lives and breathes through exhibitionist ecstasy and criticism. Cronenberg takes inner beauty literally in his latest work, his characters finding pleasure in the macabre. The entire film exists as a makeshift art exhibition with the human body at the center. The performance of it all is what highlights the extent to which society has become desensitized toward the sanctity of the body, and indeed to human life as a whole. This further alludes to clear critiques of the way voluntary surgical enhancement has become a sort of commodity, a not-uncommon trope in science fiction as a whole.
Throughout the narrative, the commentary chooses to portray art out of anarchy, as Caprice would declare. She defends Saul’s work as a means to react and protest human evolution. His body is trying to kill him: it produces new organs by the day, indistinct from that of a cancerous growth or a tumor. Through their collaborative pieces, Saul is able to remove these organs and extend his life, even if only by another day. Timlin (Kristen Stewart), a mousy employee of the organ registry who Caprice calls “especially creepy,” becomes fascinated by Tenser’s presence. By the end, she is seduced by it all, adding to the madness.
While Crimes of the Future‘s overall message is clear, the work as a whole leaves a lot to be desired. The performances are admirable within the margins of what the film provides. However, a lot of those remain on the surface level; multiple scenes featured plenty of speaking and interacting, but were somehow without any feeling of substance. There is also an added layer of gratuitous nudity sprinkled in, followed by the murder of two characters (Tanaya Beatty and Lihi Kornowski) that, upon first viewing, seemed without clear motivation.
The most fleshed-out character is Mortensen’s Tenser. At one moment, despite the way he goes about his day, he admits that he’s “afraid of everything.” The man has made it his sole purpose to be a living version of Operation for Caprice – but, instead of buzzing whenever something goes wrong, they’re both pleasured by the mistake. Surgery is the new sex, after all.
It’s a clear commentary on our current standing as a generation. The actions of our ancestors and those alive today have led to the poison and apathy that kills our children and those to come. Our current actions continue to push this superficial attraction to aesthetics and violent displays. Despite its message declaring plastic the new soylent green, Crimes of the Future’s lack of a clear narrative drive will leave many wondering where the rest of the film is.
If there are walkouts, it’s because of Cronenberg’s name only. Crimes of the Future has to be one of his tamer pieces. In the end, it’s even surprisingly tender, making it a perfect introduction for viewers like me, unfamiliar with the work of one of body horror’s crowned masters.
Crimes of the Future will be in theaters on June 3.