David Cronenberg’s “Crimes of the Future” takes place in an unfortunately not-so-distant future, where pain (and human feeling in general) are no longer what they used to be.
As human beings are changing, both internally and in an elevated yet detached mindset, surgical performance art has become popular. A couple of artists, Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and his partner, Caprice (Lea Seydoux), gain an appreciative audience and acclaim to removing the new organs growing within Tenser.
When a father dealing with a tragedy (Scott Speedman) challenges Tenser with a premise for an upcoming performance, questions of morality surface. It seems that even in a world where humans slash at their flesh to experience something and sexuality has become bizarre and vaguely sadomasochistic, there is still a difference between right and wrong …
Cronenberg wrote the screenplay, and the dialog often resembles the arch soundbites he drops during interviews. At one point, Mortensen utters this very-Cronenbergian line: “I’m not very good at the old sex.”
There are also grand declarations, like someone stating that they are “making art out of anarchy.” Someone says that “sexier means easy funding,” a reference to departmental funding, but also Cronenberg commenting on financing in the film industry.
Seydoux notes that something is “juicy with meaning,” which might be the most self-aware line in the entire thing. Indeed, “Crimes of the Future” is juicy and has much on its mind, though the juice in question will cause casual filmgoers to test their gag reflex numerous times before the first hour is up.
“What novel organs will you discover?”
— NEON (@neonrated) June 18, 2022
Yet, while Neon, the film’s distributor, has emphasized jolting imagery in the promotional materials (to be sure, there are several gross-out scenes), “Crimes of the Future” isn’t as relentlessly nauseating as you’d expect.
In fact, the concluding scenes of Alex Garland’s “Men” (another movie I loved) are far more demonstratively disgusting than anything here.
Cronenberg is still going very far, but he hasn’t overlooked character, story or subtext. Tenser’s “Accelerated Evolution Syndrome” has made the multiple surgeries a necessity, I guess, but turning it into a two-person act is also his way of dealing with a body that gives him tremendous discomfort.
Tenser lives in a landscape where painful acts have become pleasurable (similarly to the outcasts aroused by vehicular mayhem in Cronenberg’s ’96 “Crash”) and humankind is seemingly a collective of artists embracing madness.
“Crimes of the Future” can be repulsive, but it also has a sense of humor and much on its mind. Rather than finally resisting it, I found it riveting and wildly entertaining, even at its most uncomfortable. There is a theatrical quality to it – if Cronenberg decides to turn it into a stage drama, it may be as natural a transition as the 2008 opera version of “The Fly.”
Mortensen’s varying physical and vocal ticks suggest a man who maintains his dignity and human qualities by fearlessly embracing the unthinkable. Seydoux is moving at times, giving us the closest thing to an audience surrogate, though even her character becomes a cipher.
Kristin Stewart, as one of the film’s most truly odd supporting roles (which is really saying something in a movie like this), performs with clipped line readings that reminded me of Jodie Foster. Howard Shore’s incredible score is every bit as essential to the film’s success as the tremendous work of the three leads.
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“Crimes of the Future,” far more so than the body politics and squishy imagery, made me contemplate how one defines art. Someone in the film asks if an organ qualifies as art. It reminded me of Piero Manzoni, the Avant Garde artist whose arguably most infamous and discussed work is a collection of canned excrement (the 1961 piece is titled, I kid you not, “Artist’s Shit”).
It is as far removed from what I’d consider art.
Nevertheless, I’ve never forgotten Manzoni’s work (as well as his chutzpah), as it asks if there is anything more personal one can present as artistic expression than their insides.
Have I lost you yet?
I’m not saying Manzoni’s legendary work (presented in cans that, if purchased in a cluster, will cost you a fortune) isn’t gross, but what it leaves you ponder is worthwhile. Truly, what is art, are there really limitations to the word “art” and when is “shock art” a worthwhile provocation or a mere put on?
These questions apply to Cronenberg’s work as well – I may be asking for trouble by comparing him to Manzoni, but can’t engrossing (and simply gross) conversations originate from art that challenges us?
This is where “Crimes of the Future” exists and, while it will alienate many, it has the IQ and the entertainment value to justify how shocking it is.
A key subplot involves the murder of a child; while this tragic scene and plot element could have been mere exploitation elsewhere, Cronenberg uses it to demonstrate how existing pain-free has caused humankind to be cold and alien in behavior.
The deceased kid is never addressed in a way that resembles how normal human beings would discuss and grieve. These characters are all over the place in terms of how they express themselves, socially and artistically, and it’s akin to watching a documentary about insects or an alien planet where the inhabitants look like us but behave nothing like us.
Cronenberg stops short of deeming these characters freaks and simply steps back and lets the story tell itself. There is imagery here out of Cronenberg’s “Naked Lunch” (1991) and “Existenz” (1999), though it feels like he’s breaking through new creative barriers and exploring the possibilities of the human body with exceptional clarity here.
Perhaps Cronenberg’s most famous movie quote is “Long Live the New Flesh,” but here, as well as elsewhere, he makes you wonder if that’s a celebratory declaration or a dire word of caution.
If you’ve read this far and are intrigued, then see this, the latest from one of our greatest living directors and a Canadian film artist unlike any other.
I have to mention that concluding bit: There is true wonder in the final moment.
Three and a Half Stars