David Cronenberg returns after an eight-year hiatus to the body horror sub-genre he helped to redefine.
Moments into David Cronenberg’s (Cosmopolis, Eastern Promises, A History of Violence) brilliantly realized, viscerally disquieting film—his first after an eight-year hiatus and his 22nd overall — Crimes of the Future, an unnamed woman in an environmentally degraded, underpopulated dystopia commits an unsettlingly transgressive act of maternal violence. Not unexpectedly, that act of violence determines the unnamed woman’s marginal future while, in turn, playing a pivotal role in the climax and denouement of the Master of Body Horror’s first science-fiction film in more than two decades and a move toward a more conventional psychological drama and straightforward thriller with a socio-political critique of contemporary America.
Ingeniously plotted, thematically layered, and visually engrossing, Crimes of the Future centers on Saul Tenser (frequent Cronenberg collaborator Viggo Mortensen), an underground performance artist whose act involves the surgical removal of newly grown organs by his artistically minded partner, Caprice (Léa Seydoux). Saul and Caprice have developed a uniquely symbiotic relationship based on the public surgeries that form the basis of their act. Caprice functions primarily as Saul’s caretaker, attending to his emotional and physical needs, the latter through a typically Cronenbergian device, an OrchidBed, that melds organic and technological forms into an equally disturbing object. Hanging suspended from the ceiling on limb-like protuberances that connect to a resting Saul, the OrchidBed allows Saul a measure of respite and rest from the physical pain associated with growing new, superfluous organs.
Saul and Caprice make what appears to be a relatively comfortable living from their periodic performances. As Saul lies in a sarcophagus-like object, a Sark, initially created for autopsies, Caprice manipulates skeletal arms remotely from a flesh-pod, carefully opening his torso while a video camera projected on multiple screens transmits the intimate details of the surgery to an awed audience only a few feet away. In a not atypical Cronenbergian future, surgery has become the new sex (one character complains about the sudden, dangerous proliferation of “desktop surgery”), physical pain or sensation is almost nonexistent except at the extremes, and mass entertainment seems to have collapsed along with the global economy and the traditional signifiers of 21st-century technology . An inner beauty contest, however, promises Saul a different means for accumulating popularity and status, if not outright wealth.
Cronenberg interweaves several subplots and secondary characters into Saul and Caprice’s lives, including the National Organ Registry, a new, still secret government agency run by officious bureaucrats, Wippet (Don McKellar) and his executive assistant, Timlin (Kristen Stewart in self-parody mode). The fringe, cult-like group obsessed with human evolution is led by Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman), the father of the young boy from the opening scene, and a murkily motivated criminal investigation into the cult is headed by Detective Cope (Welket Bungué). While Wippet and Timlin seem fairly harmless early on, operating at the margins of Saul and Caprice’s story as over-eager, potentially toxic fans, Lang and Cope ultimately pose a more direct challenge to both their livelihoods and, more importantly for Cronenberg, their ethical and moral choices.
As degraded and fallen a world as Cronenberg imagines, morality and ethics become both more and not less important. Saul faces a choice between collaboration and resistance while Caprice increasingly sees bodily modification as a radical expression of personal agency and not just as an aesthetic act devoid of political, social, or cultural meaning. As always with Cronenberg in art-horror mode, Crimes of the Future offers more questions than answers, leaving the audience to interpret the underlying themes and ideas on their own. The last haunting image, however, suggests that a similarly radical adaptation, biological or otherwise, will be essential if humanity as a species hopes to avoid extinction: Evolve or die, indeed.
Crimes of the Future opens theatrically in North America on Friday, June 3rd.