David Cronenberg is something of an enigma to those that aren’t already in his corner. His last film was in 2014, a vicious little affair about how much he hated the industry he participated in titled Maps to the Stars, and it was at that point he walked away from said industry. In the eight years since his retirement, he published a novel, publicly expressed frustration that more creator-driven projects were being washed away by the tide of IP obsession, and did some random guest-star appearances on Star Trek: Discovery. About a year ago there were rumblings of a new project, the revival of a film entitled Painkillers that had, in the year of our lord 2003, been meant for stars Ralph Fiennes or Nicolas Cage. This new revival was to star Viggo Mortensen, mostly known for his role as Aragorn in Peter Jackson’s Tolkien Trilogy. The actor was a Cronenberg regular, starring previously in Eastern Promises, A History of Violence, and A Dangerous Method. The rest of the cast shook itself out, the premise was widely discussed (surgery, horniness, evolution, etc.), and we were off to the races. Crimes of the Future, taking the title and nothing else from the director’s 1970 film of the same name, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this year to fairly positive reactions (and apparently a few walkouts, predicted by the director).
That praise was pretty well-deserved.
Crimes of the Future opens on a young boy named Brecken (Sozos Sotiris) as he plays in the shallows, a tanker half rusted in the background behind him. The world has become a desolate place, polluted and mostly trash. The boy’s mother, Djuna Dotrice (Lihi Kornowski), calls to him, a warning that he better not eat anything he finds. There is a loathing between the two, which comes to a head when the mother discovers that the boy has eaten part of a plastic bucket before going to bed. She proceeds to smother him with a pillow before calling his father, Lang (Scott Speedman), to come to pick up the body before turning herself in.
From here we jump to performance artist Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) as he writhes in his OrchiBed. His partner, Caprice (Léa Seydoux), has come to wake him up so they can examine the new organ he is growing. Tenser grows organs, Caprice inserts a needle into him to tattoo them, and then they perform the surgery in public to show off his new organs to masses that are longing to feel anything. Humanity has evolved to a point where pain is a novelty, a relic of the past that they sometimes get to experience, and surgical mutilation has become a new performance art and is seen as an arousing display in a world where sex doesn’t really exist anymore. While the duo has become quite popular they have also been noticed by the latest in government oversight – the National Organ Registry. Two investigators, Wippet (Don McKellar) and Timlin (Kristen Stewart) begin to look into this new practice of organ removal, frightened that Saul’s shows could be the key to the next stage in human evolution and also just…achingly horny about it.
Something was lost when we moved out of the era where this director could be a star. His films have mostly never been massive box office hits, but there’s a place in the world for someone that can straddle the line between provocative arthouse fare and squelching exploitation horror comedies. I’m serious on that last part, as the relationship between Saul and Caprice plays out like a workplace comedy about two people that just never hooked up despite their mutual attraction. Seydoux is a marvel as Caprice, strapping the controls for their machine to her abdomen and pawing and the squishy panel in a near-orgasmic display of eroticism. Viggo, likewise, licks his lips sensuously while she uses remote-controlled scalpels to pry around inside of him. In Crimes of the Future everyone is horny and no one has sex, a thing that humanity has almost evolved beyond as they begin to explore each other’s bodies with sharp objects and cameras instead of fingers and dicks (I left out “tongues” because boy-howdy, does THAT come into play at one point…tummylingus). There’s playful energy between the two leads, one that is tender and loving while also remaining utterly sexless in the traditional sense.
Thank goodness surgery is the new sex.
It’s a shame that the film has a couple of pivotal missteps in its execution. Wasting Kristen Stewart is not an unforgivable sin, but it’s a cardinal one that demands a penitent action from the director. Stewart is marvelous in her thinly-scripted role, timid and awkward while barely holding back what’s roiling within (which is hilarious as you can always HEAR what’s roiling within Saul Tenser). The actress hasn’t done this much lip-biting in the service of repressing the sexuality bursting at her seams since Twilight, an odd choice in service of a part that just…doesn’t have enough ground to stand on. This is coupled with the disjointed feeling of the film. It’s more vibes than viscosity, thin but pleasing in a wholly upsetting way.
Whether or not these missteps are enough to turn you off completely is up to you, but there’s one thing we can all celebrate – the return of Howard Shore to the Cronenberg stage. Crimes of the Future marks the 18th collaboration between the two and it might be one of the best. I’m not sure who is Saul and who is Caprice, but the two take the stage for an exhibition of their own with music that is sweet, sensual, and a little weird in a way that isn’t exactly sexy, but it’s not NOT sexy. Shore’s most famous work will always be the Tolkien Trilogy, but my great love for him grew out of his bombastic work with Cronenberg. Here the two cut and extract to great success, and it’s already going down as one of my favorite scores of the year.
You already know if you’re in the pocket for Crimes of the Future. I was, and I’ll stand up for this weird little film that serves as one of the sweetest romances of the year. It’s also one of the most provocative, pushing more questions than answers and asking us to think about the human body and evolution as well as our body autonomy in an era where these things are frighteningly limited in our own lives. David Cronenberg isn’t going to ask your opinion on things like climate change, but he wants you to think about how we’re going to move forward in a world where we have more trash than treacle. It’s a marvelous little bit of blood, but one that is going to be uncomfortable for most.
Crimes of the Future is currently in theatres.