Art is painful and unpredictable in Crimes of the futureDavid Cronenberg’s latest film. But as a work of art itself, Crimes of the future has a remarkable amount of shine. Taking Cronenberg back to science fiction for the first time in two decades, the film fuses his trademark squishy body horror with a luscious retro-futuristic aesthetic and a dark but carefully traced tale of artists at the end of the world — or the birth of a new. It’s a movie with the tagline “surgery is the new sex,” but the results are less shocking and more enjoyable than they may sound.
Crimes of the future is (presumably) in the future, but there is little indication of when or where. It is set in a dingy metropolis where technology ranges from camcorders and CRTs to fleshy jellyfish-like sedation beds. Rusting boats lie half submerged on a beach on the outskirts of town, where rotting plastic contaminates the sand. Most of the population has become accustomed to pain and illness, and they are starting to grow mysterious new body parts. The only remaining art form in this future is extreme surgery, and the virtuoso performers are a duo named Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and Caprice (Léa Seydoux), who live in an abandoned industrial facility equipped to handle Tenser’s strange physical quirks.
Tenser is revered among future bohemians for his unprecedented ability to grow new internal organs. Caprice pulls these off in live performances with an eerie bone surgery machine, and strokes a controller that looks like a Milton Bradley Simon game was eaten by a deep-sea isopod. Tenser’s new parts are then cataloged by a ramshackle organization called the National Organ Registry, which is run by the paternal Wippet (Don McKellar) and the uptight Timlin (Kristen Stewart). The rare skeptic of organ art is Detective Cope (Welket Bungué), a New Vice Unit of Justice agent on the trail of an extremist group. (He admits the agency’s name was chosen to sound cool.)
There’s a lot of classic Cronenberg imagery here, including the jellyfish bed and an obsession with grotesque, yet sensual, deformity. Meanwhile, the shadowy sets and placeless glamor evoke the broader tradition of German Expressionist-influenced sci-fi noir, along the lines of Brazil or City of lost children† The film’s dialogue has a dryly humorous spiciness that feels like a twisted pastiche of a 1940s Humphrey Bogart script.
As with many good film noirs, everyone’s loyalties are confused and sometimes inscrutable. Bureaucratic bodies seem to work for various purposes with no real government to guide them. A powerful company floats around the edges of the world, but the avatars are a pair of mechanics (Nadia Litz and Tanaya Beatty) who spontaneously undress in front of customers. The world-weary Tenser plays different sides of a brewing conflict and seems exhausted from the effort. While the film isn’t exactly slow moving, the plot is so twisted that it’s not always clear where the long conversations and meditative surgical scenes go — but they’re enlivened with strikingly bizarre future technology and absurdist plot points like an “Inner Beauty Contest.”
Cronenberg predicted that Crimes of the future would cause viewers to leave the screenings, and apparently some in attendance at Cannes did just that when it premiered. It has all the trappings of splatterpunk body horror: skeletal machines split the skin like ripe fruit; facial features grow where they shouldn’t; and characters are awakened by gory, yonic wounds.
But the film is so shiny and stylized that this sounds more outré than it is. Unlike Cronenberg’s most famous violence-as-sex movies Crash and videodromeThere is no sense of a nerve-wracking new techno culture invading our own world. Bodies are often mutilated, but also putty-like and invulnerable. The violence against them rarely seems to linger. There’s little of the raw discomfort of a film like Julia Ducournau’s, really hard to watch Titanebecause the characters themselves seem so unfazed. Surgery may be the new sex, but in today’s chaste landscape, the results are less shocking than… old would be sex.
Instead, the horror hits hardest in parts that aren’t overtly gory — including every time a character eats something, ultimately yielding scenes that are much quieterly disturbing than the film’s surgical performance. Crimes of the future The central mystery concerns the nature of the “accelerated evolution syndrome” that has afflicted people like Tenser. At first, the human body seems to be confused, and Tenser considers the changes a curse; his art is an attempt to maintain control over his own flesh while trying to transform it into something new. But for others, like the criminal group that haunts New Vice, it’s a necessary physiological adjustment for an ugly future.
As Tenser sneaks around town in a flowing black costume, the group’s revolutionary movement seeks to push humanity into a form that can survive by literally consuming the plastic pollution it’s pumping into the environment. The leader (Scott Speedman) wants Caprice to dissect his son, a performance he says will reveal an enigmatic and important truth. Crimes of the future characters are caught between a decadent, dilapidated old world and a miserably efficient new one, and it’s not clear what even the most brilliant art can do to change that.
There is an interesting cross between Crimes of the future baroque metaphors about art and its extremely literal environmental themes. Tenser and Caprice are trapped in the sci-fi version of an eternal debate over aesthetics and meaning, ambivalent of fans loving their jobs for exactly the wrong reasons and participating in an aesthetically interesting project for a disturbing political cause. The futuristic surgical art scene is a sympathetic caricature of its contemporary fine art counterpart, replete with people who are undeniably pretentious, yet capable of delivering an entertaining speech or satisfyingly grotesque decor.
Like fans of Tenser’s surgical art, it’s easy to read meaning into Crimes of the future. Although the film was written around 1999, it addresses very contemporary concerns about climate change, pollution and intergenerational conflict. But it’s more satisfying to fall into a strange, wonderful exploration of a surreal subculture – beware the microplastics.
Crimes of the future will hit theaters on June 3.