A child plays in the sands at the edge of a beach. Above him is a beachside house… his mother stands on the porch, shouting down at him not to eat anything he finds down there. Later, the boy is seen brushing his teeth. When he leans over a bucket under the sink to spit, he begins to bite off pieces of plastic from the same bucket; his mother stands in the hallway outside the bathroom, looking on in despair. After the child drifts off to sleep, his mother woefully, yet decidedly, smothers him with a pillow. Even in death, the boy will prove to play a crucial role in what’s to come.
Premiering at the Cannes Film Festival on May 23, Crimes of the Future is Canadian director David Cronenberg’s latest delve into the body-horror genre he pioneered with classics such as The Fly (1986). Given that mere weeks prior to its debut, a certain leaked US Supreme Court document (Roe vs. Wade) prompted public outrage and endless debate over body politics, the film’s subject matter comes across as quite topical. Even more notable is the premise’s conception decades ago; for an aged film idea and a setting in the unspecified future, Crimes of the Future is impressively (and often uncannily) contemporary.
In this portrait of the future, Cronenberg ponders societal change in a world where physical pain and disease have been all but eradicated from the average human. This has led to patients being conscious during surgeries and, in turn, the rise of a new form of performance art involving people cutting into their bodies in front of crowds. Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) is one of these performers who, along with his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux), has become renowned for his art; a disorder of Saul’s causes him to grow organs never before seen in other humans… Caprice surgically removes these on stage. Due to his disorder, Saul relies on specially-designed furniture to (in theory) idealize his sleep and food digestion, although this proves to be a challenge due to his constantly-changing inner biology.
Naturally, a world so vividly imagined (and it is VIVID) gives Cronenberg all the freedom to play in the grotesque and gory cinema sandbox he frequents in his work. Much like his other explorations of body horror, the gratuity and crudeness are a means to an end, sure, but never the endgame itself. Crimes of the Future has its sights set on… well… seemingly a few things; allegorically, the film works on many levels, and all of them appear to be relevant. There’s certainly the subject of body politics at play here, but even the main “opposing” force — a group who wishes to use Saul’s fame to express their belief in the necessity of forced human evolution — is not painted as fully antagonistic. Crimes of the Future is hardly supportive of genetic control, but also recognizes the desire for humans to adapt to a future which we ourselves so feverishly pollute and defile; It’s impressive that even radical evolutionists are portrayed sympathetically, and there never feels like a need for a proper “villain” within the narrative.
In addition, it’s easy to read the film as a satire on the art world, and perhaps even as self-biographical for Cronenberg as the pioneer of a widely criticized and questioned film genre. This world’s artists – who mutilate their body in the name of art – are idolized by many, but have also brought upon themselves a large group of skeptics and critics. And in general, the film (particularly in its first half) approaches the concept of unique art, the sacrifice of the artist, and the inevitable rise of pseudo-artistry with a typically humorous lens. Maybe the best example of this comes in the form of a bizarre dance given by a man who has sewn his mouth shut and covered his entire body in human ears. Although his message is clearly akin to “listen, don’t speak,” he is ironically the one preaching with his art — and as a lady points out to Saul during the performance, many of the ears don’t even function.
Cronenberg’s main effort with Crimes of the Future is undoubtedly its wealth of intriguing ideas and masterfully constructed world. And while the amount of time and energy these are given is impressive, I can’t help but feel the plot itself is a bit underwhelming. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a political espionage story at play here, but it’s a bit too low-key relative to the world-building and themes. Despite that one outstanding flaw, I found Crimes of the Future to be a provocative and intellectually stimulating look at what the world may become one day. It has the ambition, the boldness, and the niche to become a cult classic… especially if its relevant-as-ever hypothesis winds up more as a prophetic warning than mere speculation.
Overall rating: 8/10