I don’t know how David Cronenberg lost me so completely. I used to be an admirer back in the old days of Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979), The Dead Zone (1983), The Fly (1986), Videodrome (1983) — especially Videodrome. But somewhere between the time of Naked Lunch (1991) and eXistenZ (1999), his visceral impact — for me, at least — started waning fast, even as he went deeper into images and set pieces revolving around gore-and-technology, a subgenre his fans call “body horror.” And now, decades later, here we are at Crimes of the Future — perhaps the ultimate “body horror” film — and it’s a complete bore.
I didn’t even find the film particularly gross or disgusting — oozing fleshy computers and sentient insectoid beds and metallic prods poking around exposed human organs are now just another day at the office when it comes to Cronenberg. The reports of people walking out, presumably sickened, at the Cannes Film Festival, where the film got a six-minute standing ovation — that’s one more minute than the ovation for Top Gun: Maverick — just go to show that Cannes audiences are, overall, pretty silly, and probably drunk.
Crimes of the Future is set in a dystopian future in which the decimated population leaves only people who are mutating and losing their capacity to feel pain, which makes “desktop surgery” a common practice. Infection is becoming a thing of the past, resulting in a drop in basic sanitation so that grubby surfaces are everywhere. A pair of performance artists named Saul Tensor and Caprice (Viggo Mortensen and Léa Seydoux) are celebrities showcasing the growth of life-threatening new organs in Saul’s body, by staging their surgical removal. Their show brings them to the attention of the National Organ Registry, which is charting the disease Saul suffers from, “Accelerated Evolution Syndrome.” The registry is run by a bureaucrat named Wippet (Don McKellar) and his timid assistant Timlin (Kristen Stewart), who becomes sexually fascinated by Saul, noting that “surgery is the new sex.”
A radical group of “plastic eaters” led by Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman), whose systems contain enough microplastics to make plastic a nontoxic food source for them, are also of interest to the Registry and being hunted by the cops, including Detective Cope (Welket Bungué) who are trying to control the evolution of the human race. Dotrice wants Saul and Caprice to do a public performance art autopsy on his son Brecken — who was born with the capacity to live on plastic and was murdered by his horrified mother — in order to prove that there’s nothing to fear in this new evolutionary development.
Cronenberg is attempting an ambitious film grappling with big ideas, one of which confronts aspects of environmental catastrophe such as microplastics now found in our flesh and bloodstreams with typical Cronenbergian nonchalance. Acknowledging that we’re “kind of destroying the Earth” and regarding it as unrealistic that we can cleanse the world and ourselves of microplastics, he argues that we might need “something bizarre to survive as a species.” As he sums it up humorously, “It’s not exactly Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, but it kind of is. It’s like, ‘Let them eat plastic.’”
Cronenberg makes Saul the character in the film who hates his own mutation, which seems to be destroying his bodily functions, and resists the rise of the “plastic-eaters.” He’s secretly working with Detective Cope, narcing on their activities, even as he seems to cooperate, however grudgingly, with Lang Dotrice’s desire to have his son publicly autopsied. So Saul and Lang trade position points on this topic, and Saul and Cope, who’s even more opposed to this new evolutionary subgroup, talks disturbingly of wiping them all out.
Detective Cope also doesn’t understand how Saul’s organ-growing art constitutes art. This gives them plenty of opportunity, while standing in some handsomely composed shot placing them in a grotty abandoned ruin in the dead of night, to thrash out another knotty topic: the question of how art is defined. What role does human will play in its creation, and how is meaningful expression constituted?
This movie is loaded with scenes involving two people standing against beautifully-lit walls, taking opposed rhetorical stances on these issues. And because some of these issues are in fact of interest to me, I naturally wondered why I was checking my phone for the time repeatedly, though the movie only runs for an hour and forty-seven minutes.
For balance, it’s worth consulting the views of someone who truly loves the film, and examines it in detail. Amy Taubin, interviewing Cronenberg in Art Forum, is in his view the “right audience” for the film. She claims to have “laughed throughout” at its dark wit, and to have “cried a lot too,” having strongly identified with Saul Tensor and Caprice, “perhaps the last human couple.” She was enraptured by the film’s location setting in Athens, Greece, “the cradle of Western civilization,” and suggests that Cronenberg is dramatizing the planet breaking down, humanity breaking down, and the narrative breaking down, becoming “so fragmented that the pieces barely connect into a plot…”
I admit I didn’t share any of her experience. Didn’t laugh, didn’t cry, didn’t identify with Saul and Caprice, scarcely registered the importance of the Greek setting. I found plenty of the usual kind of plot in operation. If only there had been less didactic wrangling, less heavy-handed exposition put in the mouths of talented actors struggling to make their lines sound plausible.
But Cronenberg concurs with Taubin, claiming that the “crumbling” quality of the film’s narrative is a result of its “coming from the inside of the body now, as if the new organs that Saul’s body generates are episodes in a streaming series. Saul is trying to understand the narrative that his body is telling him.”
I think Cronenberg has lost me, in part, because he started taking these rather lofty, posh-art-student kind of stances and manifesting them in his ever more beautifully and slickly produced films. Crimes of the Future is like the answer to the question, “Why do people hate art, or what currently passes for it, as well as self-proclaimed artists?”
Not only do Crimes of the Future’s performance artists swank around self-importantly, making portentous speeches to each other, with Viggo Mortensen wearing an absurd black hooded cloak like a character out of a Harry Potter book, but the director backs them up with similar rhetoric while promoting it. Though at least he doesn’t wear the black cloak of a Medieval seer while doing it.
However, I’ve got to acknowledge that representing performance art as the dominant art form of the future, obsessing the mutating population, is a bleak dystopian vision indeed.