If Hell has an Ikea, it’s fully stocked with the designer grotesqueries that pass for furniture in Crimes of the Future. The latest bio-mechanical Tempur-Pedic technology has produced a new type of womb hammock that squirms to ease the pain of those slumbering in their folds. The chair is made of bone and jerks and fidgets hilariously to aid fussy eaters. An automated surgery pod with incising tentacles controlled by an insect-like remote is the most luxurious of organic-machine luxury amenities. The Geek Squad technicians ogle the appliance like a sports car, admiring its shiny surfaces and gleaming hospital hardware.
Who else than Carol Spier would have created this mutant showroom? This is her baroquely distinctive work, which gives us the first clue that we are watching someone fall off the wagon and into an all-night coma two decades after giving up on his worst vice. That someone, of course, is David Cronenberg, the Canadian director of such gooey, goopy triumphs as The Fly, Videodrome, and Naked Lunch. Creatively, his vice was once body horror. This is the queasy strain that he used to be corporeally fixed nightmare fuel. Cronenberg quit his vice at the end the last century and stopped wreaking havoc upon the spongiest parts of humanity. But after 20 years sober, he’s ready to party like it’s 1999. There is no safe place for any flesh, whether it’s old or new.
The future of Crimes of the Future is one where human evolution has sped up to accommodate the rate at which we’re poisoning ourselves and the planet. Pain is gone, and new mysterious organs appear in people with such regularity that an entire government agency was established to track them. Celebrity performance artist Saul Tenser (Viggo Morensen) is adapting to this new world order. He goes under the knife both for work and pleasure. His body is the canvas and the knife the brush. He straps himself in to the portable operating theatre, where Caprice (Lea Seydoux), his partner in art, and life, remotely removes an invasive tumor from his stomach. This is a scene that is a chorus of oohs, aahs, and giggles.
“Surgery is the new sex,” someone gushes at Saul after the procedure-performance. It’s one of a few lines in Crimes of the Future that flirt with outright self-parody of Cronenberg-speak, that singular alien language he’s been refining and expanding since the 1970s. The man’s movies can start baffling, overwhelming you with their oddball terminology and taxonomies. The viewer will feel fluent by the end. It’s like an expat who has been immersed in the language every day. Cronenberg is known for finding actors who can deliver his sci-fi vocabulary almost naturally.
He actually wrote Crimes of the Future in ’99. It might have felt like he was repeating himself back then — a greatest hits list of mutilation or pontification. Cronenberg has become more self-reflective since he was away from his wheelhouse. Crimes of the Future is maximalist in concept, minimalist in execution. The vision of the future has an industrial claustrophobia. It is all darkened, dank spaces. As in the last feature he scripted himself, the capitalism-in-decline art thriller Cosmopolis, Cronenberg limits his world-building mostly to conversations — Saul’s tete-a-tetes with a revolving cast of peers, functionaries, and fans with noir names.
The plot is, to be completely honest, inexplicable and borderline arbitrary. It involves the conflict among various political factions with differing opinions on the next steps for our species. Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman), a father who has lost his son, wants Saul to incorporate the corpse of his deceased son into his next performance. In the opening sequence of the film, the child was smothered in his mother’s arms and ate plastic like candy. This is our only hope of survival: To be able to eat our synthetic imperishables. Although the narrative is full of philosophical questions, it doesn’t really connect and veers off to the end.
It’s much easier to admire Crimes of the Future as a wicked art-world satire. For all the outre imagery that provoked walkouts at Cannes last month, Cronenberg isn’t really out to shock here. Cronenberg isn’t really trying to shock here, despite the outlandish imagery that prompted walkouts at Cannes last month.
Viggo is a puckishly droll, physically precise and clearly playing some version his director: A gray-haired provocateur of literal body horror. The filmmaker can use it as a self-deprecating self portrait by proxy. It allows him to reflect on his age as an elderly statesman of gross-out art. Cronenberg has Cronenberg warmed some over the years? Crimes of the Future is withering on the macro scale of mankind (this is not a hopeful vision of where we might end up), but surprisingly optimistic on the business of sharing a life and calling. Caprice and Saul exude the warmth of a happy couple who are well-suited for shared perversions. Seydoux is the only one who could make unzipping a stomach and tongue the intestines appealing.
It’s this artistic process that Cronenberg most skillfully slaps onto the slab. It is fitting that such anatomical obsessive films would look inward rather than outward to gain their greatest insights. Art is about showing one’s true self. How can an artist be more honest than by revealing what pulsates within their abdomen? Extraneous organs taken from Saul for the benefit of the bourgeoisie are inspiration in themselves. But does removing them and marking them reduce them somehow, the same way that no realization of a creative idea can compete with the pure version in your head? Caprice, who is slicing, dicing, and working from afar, could be the true artist. Cronenberg never did it alone. He relied on his collaborators from his earliest explorations into the complicated secrets of the mind and body.
The title, incidentally, is borrowed from one of those inaugural experiments — a low-budget, barely watchable campus art drama that basically amounted to Cronenberg rattling off all of the preoccupations he would later develop into revolting masterpieces. It’s tempting to think of Crimes of the Future as him going full circle, ready to reclaim the squishy subgenre he largely birthed. This isn’t a regressive victory lap, despite its transgressive echoes. It’s a movie about a prime old-master, laid back in its own funny way. A luminary reviews his kingdom and evaluates his place within it. Cronenberg returns to his most famous mode and slyly questions the expectations that artists have to live up to — to be able to adapt to another’s agenda, evolve, or stay the same. This insight cuts through as deep as any scalpel.
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