By Nicole Veneto
If you find David Cronenberg’s cinematic philosophy on bodily abjection/assimilation and the artistic process intellectually stimulating, then you’re in for an intoxicating return to form from the man whose name is synonymous with the body horror genre.
Crimes of the Future, directed by David Cronenberg. Screening at Coolidge Corner Theatre, Kendall Square Cinema, and other cinemas around New England.
If there’s an overarching thesis in David Cronenberg’s filmography, encompassing everything from The Brood’s sentient feminine rage-tumors to Robert Pattinson’s asymmetrical prostate in Cosmopolis, it’s the notion that the body is reality. Past, present, and future are inscribed upon the body in symbiosis with its environment. “Reality” is defined as an inherently corporeal state where existence is experienced through the flesh. What’s “real” can only be understood in purely somatic terms, whether it’s the carnal pleasures of sex and violence in mass media (Videodrome) or the fetishization of modernity at the end of history (Crash). Arguably no other director than Canada’s Baron of Blood himself has so consistently privileged the flesh as both the locus of meaning and the primary medium of the message.
It’s been a minute since Cronenberg’s last foray into body horror — over 20 years, to be exact. After 1999’s eXistenZ (wherein Jude Law beta tests a bio-VR gaming system and gets his hole fingered by Jennifer Jason Leigh), Cronenberg pivoted into drama-heavy psychological thrillers like Spider, A History of Violence, and A Dangerous Method. Here the horror was directed inward toward the mutated grotesqueries of the human psyche. These more “sophisticated” dramas nonetheless share the same distinctive cinematic DNA as Shivers, Scanners, and The Fly, even if they lack stuff like grandiose head explosions and medicine cabinets filled with jarred body parts.
So fresh off its Cannes premiere it’s practically pulsating, Cronenberg’s newest film, Crimes of the Future, sadly went home empty-handed despite Julia Ducournau’s breakthrough body horror masterpiece Titane winning top prize last year. (Cronenberg did receive a six-minute standing ovation and a handful of walkouts, always a good sign.) If the title sounds familiar that’s because it’s lifted from Cronenberg’s 1970 underground film of the same name. Shared title aside, Crimes of the Future 2.0 bears little to no resemblance to the 63-minute student film it’s recycled from; much like Cronenberg’s other early effort, Stereo, Crimes 1.0 is a tedious and virtually silent pseudo-documentary overloaded with expository voice-over dialogue and competently shot footage of the University of Toronto’s brutalist architecture. (Like the NFT The Death of David Cronenberg, I’d only recommend Crimes of the Future 1.0 and Stereo to Cronenberg completists.)
There is, curiously, a passing reference to a character spontaneously growing useless yet functional organs in the otherwise unrelated sophomore feature. This germ of an idea gestated in Cronenberg’s mind over the next two decades until he began writing what would become the new and improved Crimes of the Future — originally titled Painkillers — around the time he completed eXistenZ. Considerably more subdued than any of Cronenberg’s ’80s output, Crimes of the Future is a cool synthesis between the speculative sci-fi horror of eXistenZ and Cosmopolis’ techno-dystopianism, depicting a near-future wherein the effects of environmental destruction have forcefully numbed the human body’s ability to register pain. (As Willow Catelyn Maclay astutely surmises, throughout Cronenberg’s body of work “[t]he destruction, transcendence, and evolution of the flesh always had a broader meaning, or interrogation, to be made about our place in any given time period.”)
Chronically ill performance artist Saul Tenser (Cronenberg-surrogate and smoocher Viggo Mortensen) and his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux) have a one of a kind act they put on for the underground art scene of the future. On top of the near universal loss of pain, a growing number of the populace are sprouting new vestigial organs, Tenser being the most prolific of them. Once a skilled trauma surgeon, Caprice performs live vivisections on Tenser to tattoo and remove the appendages using a veiny, flesh-like surgical pod originally developed for autopsies. Each uniquely formed organ is then sent to the National Organ Registry to be cataloged by eccentric bureaucrat Wippet (eXistenZ’s Don McKellar) and his soft-spoken assistant Timlin (the ever underappreciated Kristen Stewart, whose brilliance in this role lies in infusing a psychosexual perversity to the awkwardly twitchy caricature that’s haunted her since Twilight). While Wippet’s interest in Tenser remains relatively scientific, Timlin salivates at the idea of digging into the aging artist’s innards. In a world without pain, surgery has effectively become “the new sex,” a mantra that Timlin takes as erotic gospel.
While Caprice grows uneasy over Timlin’s wholly unprofessional fixation on her partner/artistic muse, Tenser is approached by antigovernment evolutionist Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman) with a peculiar idea about how he and Caprice can freshen up their act. He proposes that they perform a live autopsy on his dead son Brecken (Sozos Sotiris) to showcase a new, previously unknown development in human evolution — eating and digesting plastic. (That Cronenberg anticipated the discourse over microplastics in his decades old script is a testament to the same brilliant prescience that made Videodrome and Crash so durable against time.) Sensing there’s more behind Dotrice’s offer than mere artistic provocation, Tensler begins to supply information to Detective Cope (Welket Bungué, Berlin Alexanderplatz) of the inchoate New Vice Unit, which is investigating an illegal, underground surgical cell that’s modifying people’s insides to process purple candy bars manufactured from toxic plastics. Though Crimes of the Future is a relatively less gory metamorphic allegory — at least compared to The Fly or Naked Lunch — Cronenberg still delivers on the kind of goods you’ll never get from a bloated superhero flick shot entirely on green screen. Only Cronenberg could pull off this lineup of Giger-esque props (reminiscent of the Mantle twins’ gynecological devices for “mutant women” in Dead Ringers), practical effects, and set-pieces, the latter including filicide, the Ear Man, Seydoux eating out Mortensen’s stomach pussy, and a visceral eroticism (viscerotica, if I may).
Along with Mortensen, most of Cronenberg’s usual cadre of collaborators are in the house. Veteran production designer Carol Spier teams up with cinematographer Douglas Koch to visualize a decaying film noir in varying shades of disemboweled intestines: deep blood reds, fleshy pinks, and sallow yellows color the sun-bleached Grecian landscape with its graffitied buildings and beached ships rusting away into nothingness. The score, composed by Cronenberg favorite Howard Shore, adds another noir-toned layer to the film’s atmosphere.
Sadly, in the time since Cronenberg’s previous feature, Maps to the Stars, the director’s sister and costume designer since The Fly, Denise, passed away in May 2020. It’s telling when you’ve become accustomed to seeing certain names in a filmmaker’s creative team and notice their absence in the credits. In this sense, Cronenberg represents the antithesis of contemporary filmmaking. With the mid-budget feature all but dead, consistent creative collaborators and tactile visual effects have been supplanted by underpaid nonunion workers and a computer algorithm that creates one third of a movie before an actor actually steps on set. It’s a miracle Cronenberg had another sick movie in him.
Crimes of the Future might underwhelm those looking for a hardcore endurance test that’ll cause psychosomatic reactions in all who watch it. If you find Cronenberg’s cinematic philosophy on bodily abjection/assimilation and the artistic process intellectually stimulating, then you’re in for an intoxicating return to form from the man whose name is synonymous with the body horror genre. To rephrase a line of dialogue from Elias Koteas’s character in Crash, Cronenberg’s interests in Crimes of the Future lie with reshaping the human body according to modernity. And when modernity is defined by environmental ruin, what else are we to do but keep eating microplastics?
Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader. She’s the co-host of the new podcast Marvelous! Or, the Death of Cinema. You can follow her on Letterboxd and Twitter @kuntsuragi as well as on Substack.