This author doesn’t quite understand what happened between Maps to the Stars and Crimes of the Future to classify David Cronenberg fans as twisted loonies, but let’s all wear the badge with pride. It’s a badge of honour, really. Cronenberg remains one of few filmmakers operating at the top of his game just shy of his eightieth birthday. Over twenty films in, Cronenberg still makes a viewer squirm. It is not, however, due to perversion. Cronenberg masters the art of provocation. He makes one wiggle in one’s skin, yet nobody quite pokes and prods the brain like Cronenberg does. He mutates the body to consider what lies within. With Crimes of the Future, David Cronenberg reminds us why he’s Canada’s best and most significant filmmaker—but also our boldest and most challenging voice—with this darkly funny return after a long winter’s nap. Sickos, rejoice.
The extent to which one can stomach Crimes of the Future, moreover, gets tested in the opening minutes. After an enigmatic Howard Shore score and a sunken ship off the coast of Greece set the scene in the near future, Cronenberg seemingly shifts the stage to another planet. A creepy child munches on a wastebasket after using the bathroom. Then, quickly, quietly, and dispassionately, his mother smothers him with a pillow. It’s surprisingly the least shocking element of Cronenberg’s film. If, however, one share’s the mother’s sense of relief, this opening scene may suggest that the true sicko is not Mr. Cronenberg, but you, dear reader. (Or writer, in this case.)
Crimes of the Future gets especially “Cronenbergundian,” to use the director’s preferred descriptor, as the sickest stuff happens during sleep. Take, for example, the OrchidBed in which Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) reposes. This unique regeneration chamber re-calibrates the effects of Accelerated Evolution Syndrome experienced by the humans(ish) of the tale. Saul is a performance artist and his body is his canvas. Like Joan Rivers, he transforms himself through surgery. But unlike the late comedienne with the acid-laced tongue, the soft-spoken artist’s transformations aren’t cosmetic. They probe his twisted insides and whatever elements of the soul may run deeper.
His partner in crime, Caprice (Léa Seydoux), meanwhile, navigates the canvas of his body like Picasso with a paintbrush. She’s a true master of the avant-garde as her explorations of the body beautiful prod the recesses of human experience. By observing the strange performance art of Saul and Caprice, Cronenberg invites larger questions about art and ethics, and the rights people have over their bodies, and those of others.
This bureaucratic hurdle arises when Tenser discovers a new organ. (They pop up now and then in the days of Future’s present.) Saul and Caprice visit a dank office known, unofficially, as the National Organ Registry. There, they encounter Wippet (Don McKellar) and Timlin (Kristen Stewart), a pair of odd ducks both intrigued and unsettled by the duo’s exploration of parts unknown.
McKellar and Stewart a Dream Team
If there’s one true surprise to Crimes of the Future, however, it’s not the dead kid nor the cringe-worthy autopsies. It’s the electric chemistry between McKellar and Stewart. They offer one of the truly great screen pairings of contemporary cinema. They are the Tracy and Hepburn of the Cronenbergundian. Crimes of the Future is unexpectedly funny for a Cronenberg film, and McKellar and Stewart arguably make it click. The film straddles a razor’s edge of black comedy with surgical precision. However, these two MVPs of the excellent cast push the terrain of our weird, insatiable hunger to know more about the human condition.
Stewart, unsurprisingly, steals the film with limited screentime. Her twitchy performance embraces Timlin’s awkwardness. However, she owns her character’s strange vibes. The curious bureaucratic become visibly aroused by big ideas and big organs. She thirsts for Saul’s creative energy, and Stewart arguably injects Crimes of the Future with a psychosexual vibe that is unmistakably Cronenbergian. Just watch her quiver with orgasmic thrill as she asks Tenser about his art.
McKellar, meanwhile, may be the film’s biggest surprise. Amid a trio of heavy hitters, McKellar’s never quite embraced his goofy everyman charm like he does here. It’s fun to see the actor who directed Cronenberg in an early acting role—the weird executive of Last Night—have the tables turned to enact a somewhat similar part by the auteur. McKellar’s very funny here. Weird, perceptibly perverted, and easily the straight-man amid a sea of sickos, he provides just the right accent to contrast with Mortensen and Seydoux’s super-serious performances. Character actors should take note.
Art and Ethics
Seydoux, meanwhile, is as good as always. She balances the duality of Cronenberg’s “body and mind” meditations. Caprice faces a moral reckoning as she ultimately performs the autopsies, including a sensational ask that brings the film to its shocking climax. My legs squirmed and my shoes squeaked along the floor as I reacted physically to the performance with which Caprice and Tenser shock onlookers. The cringe-factor, though, is less due to who is under knife than who is wielding it. The gravity of Seydoux’s all-in performance perfectly embodies how much creators can be consumed by art. Mortensen’s turn, meanwhile, is notably subdued. Almost parroting the dry soft-spokenness of his director, Mortensen’s Tenser seems equally energized and depleted by so many turns under the knife. These artists give not a pound of flesh, but a part of their soul with each creation.
The contrast between Tenser and Caprice, moreover, may be one question that Cronenberg hopes to poke with this artistic autopsy. Should art stimulate the brain or the heart? Does arts provoke intellectual responses or emotional ones? The kind of reactions one has to a performance, or a film, can greatly dictate how one responds to the world. Crimes of the Future leaves it to audiences to decide the value of visceral reactions versus considered ones. Yet the fates of Tenser and Caprice point to which organ one’s loyalty should lie.
Under His Own Knife
Cronenberg, similarly, gives much of himself Crimes of the Future. While it’s been eight years since Maps to the Stars, Crimes of the Future has been gestating in his belly for much longer. (Aside from thematic overtones, it has no relation to his 1970 film of the same name.)
This deliciously gross mind-bender has all the signature Cronenberg marks. It might not be his best film—and it’s far from his weakest—and yet Crimes of the Future seemingly distills his entire filmography into one work. There are discernible aspects of Naked Lunch, from the literary strangeness and the speculative setting both strange and new, to the shapeshifting feeding chair that resembles the film’s iconic Mudwump character. The surgery, plugs, and techno-fused body mapping evoke both eXistenZ and Videodrome, while the brutal surgeries call to mind the gonzo gynecology of Dead Ringers. Ditto the black humour of Maps to the Stars, the carnal collisions of Crash, and the cerebral prodding of Cosmopolis.
Crimes of the Future therefore intersects with all facets of Cronenberg’s filmography. The echoes of previous films should delight fans because it’s always a thrill to see how an auteur’s body of work is in dialogue with itself. Moreover, Crimes collides with some Cronenberg works and improves upon them in the process. (It is, in a sense, the ideas that eXistenZ had, but didn’t realize.) Other times, it might evoke better Cronenberg films. No film, for example, puts its audience under the knife like Dead Ringers does. (At least for this twin.)
However, in cutting himself open and exposing himself for all to see, Cronenberg lets the wounds of films that didn’t work or ideas that weren’t fully realized heal. Rather than offer scar tissue, though, Cronenberg generates a masterfully grafted new flesh. Long live.