The Current Debate: The Shocks of Cronenberg’s “Crimes of the Future”

It’s in the unsettling, eerily prophetic ideas that Cronenberg’s latest body-horror foray finds its most shocking material.
Leonardo Goi

“People will say, ‘Oh, he’s back to body horror; he’s doing the same stuff he always did,’” David Cronenberg told Adam Nayman in a recent New Yorker profile of the 79-year-old Canadian director. “But it’s never changed for me. My interest in the body is because, for me, it’s an inexhaustible subject—and of the essence of understanding the human condition.” Crimes of the Future, Cronenberg’s first feature in eight years and his first time working from an original script since 1999’s eXistenZ, continues his career-long journey into the mysteries of our anatomy and the boundary-pushing relationship between flesh and technology. 

Set in a rusty wasteland of shipwrecks and dank alleys, where physical pain has been eradicated and body organs seem to be everyone’s obsession, the film follows a couple of performance artists, Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and Caprice (Léa Seydoux). Riddled with a medical condition known as “Accelerated Evolution Syndrome,” Saul’s body is spawning new and inexplicable organs, which Caprice excises in front of live and spellbound audiences. It’s a gruesome and viciously captivating show that’s turned Saul into a celebrity, haunted by fans and government officials who, like Don McKellar’s Wippet and Kristen Stewart’s Timlin, can barely hide their awe for the man and his abominable gift. 

Speaking to Deadline on the eve of the film’s Cannes premiere, Cronenberg himself had prophesied a gnarly, gory spectacle set to trigger endless walkouts and panic attacks. (He elaborated a bit in a different conversation with Variety, musing that “the worst thing is if your movie is boring, and I’ve been [to] some screenings in Cannes where nobody walked out but nobody cared about the movie either.”) Curiously, much of the (admittedly scarce) negative response Crimes has so far attracted seems to pivot on its failure to live up to that promise. Put otherwise, the film is seen as far more cerebral than startling. For Jordan Hoffman, writing at the A.V. Club, “the biggest shock [in Crimes] is that when internal organs aren’t slithering around in close up, the rest of the movie is just a concrete wall of very slow dialogue.” Indeed, Ann Hornaday echoes at The Washington Post, the film “takes an intriguing premise only to muddle it up within a tedious story, equally tiresome characters, the director’s fetishistic go-tos, self-conscious opacity and blunt obviousness.” 

With its outré images and pulsating shots of human viscera, “Crimes of the Future” is clearly meant to shock, as well as reference very real anxieties about technology, genetics and environmental degradation. But as the convoluted plot wears on, Cronenberg’s transgressive kink looks more and more played out. He develops an irritating habit of explaining his symbolism through characters who spend a lot of time spouting dialogue that’s expository without illuminating much. 

I am sympathetic to those who won’t find the film’s lofty musings as entrancing as the caliginous, sepulchral spell it casts. But to expect conventional horror from all the surgeries and body talk is to miss the point. “Cronenberg, as he has proved in film after film,” Justin Chang reminds us at the L.A. Times, “has no use for crude jolts or gratuitous violence,” and “if Crimes of the Future is a slasher movie of sorts, it’s one in which every cut has elegance and purpose, and every spurt of blood delivers an intellectual payload.” 

In pointedly neutralizing the pain felt by his human characters […] Cronenberg also goes some distance toward neutralizing our own revulsion; he allows us to look, at length and without flinching, upon sometimes beautiful, sometimes ghastly images of the body and its (dis)contents. His aesthetic acts as an anesthetic, opening us up—much as Caprice opens up Saul, and vice versa—and imploring us to consider what awaits our planet, our children and the precious internal circuitry that makes us human.

In a film where discussions about bodies carry as much weight (and screen time) as the surgeries-performances themselves, Crimes of the Future shocks less through its images than the unsettling theories it dishes out. To borrow from Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, the film’s “most forbidding aspect…”

…[is] the fact that [it] makes you feel like you’re being attacked by metaphors. It’s a body-horror movie that keeps growing new “ideas.” Like most of Cronenberg’s films, it works from the head down. […] “Crimes of the Future” will prove too extreme for most viewers, but one reason the film is extreme is that it’s mired in fears that most of them have long looked past.

Dystopian as they may sound, some of the film’s ideas have already proved disturbingly prophetic—all the more so if one considers Cronenberg had written the script over twenty years ago and barely touched it since. A subplot concerning humans able to digest plastic, in light of recent discoveries that plastic particles can travel through our bloodstream, graces Crimes with a clairvoyant power (much to Cronenberg’s delight). It also speaks to what’s possibly the film’s chief preoccupation, as aptly summed up by IndieWire’s David Ehrlich: “the barbaric futility of trying to police new flesh with old principles.” 

Still, one may argue that the maze of what-ifs does not quite gel, conjuring up something that’s arguably closer to a mood piece than a narrative story. “Confusion,” Richard Lawson contends at Vanity Fair, “is often the chief mental state of watching a Cronenberg film.” 

But “Crimes of the Future”’s tinkerings and noodlings creep ever closer toward frustration as the Cronenberg’s unexpectedly mellow film unfolds. It’s a movie full of ideas that are never quite unified into a thesis. A bunch of wild imagery and grim hypotheticals about what could become of us may be enough for some viewers. Others, like me, will be left prodding away, trying to locate more meat on all of these ornately assembled bones. 

Crimes of the Future, Alison Willmore concurs over at Vulture, “isn’t a terrible movie, but it’s so relentlessly moribund, barely staggering through the half-formed narrative giving it structure.” 

The film only really comes alive when showing the high-concept performances from its main characters and their cohort, from a bitchily received dance number given by a man with ears all over his body to a work in which a beautiful woman disfigures her own face. “Crimes of the Future” otherwise remains aloof and indifferent to the people it puts onscreen, as though unable to bring itself to invest in their strange travails, much less to really put energy into their ability to provoke.

Again, I can appreciate the concerns of those struggling to orient themselves in the film’s maze of conjectures and hypotheticals. But to criticize Crimes for its ethereal narrative and absence of a conventional, linear plot seems to me to play into the director’s hands. Speaking with Cronenberg for Artforum—in one of the most eye-opening conversations around the film—Amy Taubin wonders whether there may be a parallel between the destruction of the planet Saul, Caprice, & co are stranded in and the crumbling of the film’s own narrative. To which Cronenberg offers a thought-provoking answer, stressing that, at its core, Saul’s predicament is the struggle of an artist who tries (and fails) to shape a new narrative he doesn’t fully grasp (“It’s like the narrative is coming from the inside of the body now, as if the new organs that Saul’s body generates are episodes in a streaming series”).

Hence the need to better spell out the special strain of “shocking” Crimes deals with, as well as our own relationship with it. Critiques of the film’s absence of genuinely terrifying moments say more about our voyeurism than they do about the film’s shortcomings. As uneven and didactic in its dialogue as it may be, Eileen G’Sell astutely observes at Reverse Shot, Crimes “lampoons the appetite for novel spectacle that subsumes so much of contemporary visual culture”; in other words, “this is a film that invites us to smirk at those titillated by shock value, all while being seductively shocked ourselves.”

As Saul’s and Caprice’s audience lurches forward to record via “ring-cams” their performances, our own voyeurism feels ever more fraught. If surgery is the “new sex” at the vanguard of high art, it begs the question of how art and sex are themselves forms of spectacular exposure in an increasingly visual—and filtered—media landscape. After all, how much arousal today is prompted by witnessing staged sex on smartphone screens? And aren’t operating rooms still called “theaters” in Britain—a callback to the Renaissance, when dissections were performed in anatomical amphitheaters to the delight of paying viewers? In terms of our incessantly refreshed social media feeds, is our hunger for constant vulnerability among celebrities in the form of “authentic” pics and confessional posts truly that far from salivating at the sight of a stranger’s shiny entrails? If someone “opens up” about emotional damage or a traumatic event, is not our ravenous curiosity vaguely pornographic?

“‘Body is reality’ is a mantra of the movie, and it’s a mantra for me as an artist as well,” Cronenberg recently told Devika Girish at Film Comment. Nothing about Crimes of the Future is more shocking than its poking at our hunger for outrageous and gratifying bodily violations. That the film may leave that urge unsatisfied is part of Cronenberg’s design; that it raises all manner of questions around our own role before those horrors is a testament to the vitality of his cinema of ideas. “There’s so many things going on in any human being,” the director added to Vulture’s Rachel Handler. “We’re very complex, as I’m sure you know. So why shouldn’t a movie be like that? Why shouldn’t a movie be like a human body?” 

The Current Debate is a biweekly column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.

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