David Cronenberg may not be a filmmaker known by today’s cinephiles, but that’s not entirely his fault. While the famed director helped elevate Body Horror into the mainstream, Cronenberg’s eight-year hiatus dated back to Maps to the Stars in 2014. The Hollywood satire featured big names and exciting performances, but brought in less than a million dollars at the box office. This was the worst-case scenario for a director with hits like The Fly, Eastern Promise, and A History of Violence. Luckily, Neon decided to get back in the Cronenberg business, allowing him to return to the genre that helped him make his name. His latest film, Crimes of the Future, will not be for everyone. Yet watching a master work in his comfort zone makes Crimes a must-see.
In the not-so-distant future, human beings have begun evolving in unusual ways. A group has been secretly created to monitor humans that grow new organs, logging them as they are discovered. This brings performance artists Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and Caprice (Léa Seydoux) into contact with Timlin (Kristen Stewart) and Wippet (Don McKellar). Tenser and Caprice consider themselves performance artists, tattooing and removing new organs that sprout inside Saul. This surgery occurs in front of paying crowds, and the grotesque shows take on a sensual overtone. At the same time, a “Vice” agent (Welket Bungué) recruits Tenser to spy on an emerging “mutant” community. When one of these leaders (Scott Speedman) approaches Tenser and Caprice with an unusual proposal, Tenser begins to question the purpose of his art.
Cronenberg invites discussion with his odd and eccentric filmmaking, but several readings instantly emerge. The most obvious read on the film comes as an environmental question. As the world changed and the human concept of pain fades for most creatures, humans evolved. Characters begin eating plastic, a “resource” in abundance, and as a result, they threaten the stability of traditional human values. A tale as old as time, humans hate those unlike them, and will stop at nothing to snuff the next stage in evolution if it threatens the human race.
Cronenberg’s fascination with the human body and the oddity of nature that it symbolizes also opens the films to queer readings. Tenser’s new organ growth represents something unique in human evolution, and the way he handles the events is to literally remove it from his body. It makes him atypical, and he wants to be normal for as long as possible. If it means he earns money, it works for him, but the goal is normality. It is only when he’s entered into a “beauty pageant” and forced to endure his new organ growth for a prolonged time that he embraces what these new organs may reveal. No moment further clarifies a transitional reading than the final moments of the film, where he at once embraces a new version of life that literally changes the color of the world around him.
Perhaps most personal to Cronenberg is a read about the state of the industry. The performance artist angle opens this reading as two artists struggle to create something of value for audiences drawn to their grotesque nature. However, they are not popular shows, and Tenser must continually grow new organs for these events. While they’re tattooed with his signature, little comes from them. Only when the organs appear in a late film reveal that their use makes sense. They also seem to be co-opted for a more significant event, one that can shake up the world but instead reuses the organs of old. Earlier in the film, another character’s overuse of glitzy and odd organs is critiqued, seeming blasting that artist for uses them for style over substance. The critique of art makes much of the film feel like an allegory for Cronenberg’s own Hollywood struggles.
There was a time when the biggest studios in the world came calling for Cronenberg. It’s well documented that he almost directed a Star Wars film, and his distinct outsider persona pushed him further into the fringe when success found its way to his doorstep. In many ways, Cronenberg’s more artistic and absurdist worldview has allowed him to maintain dignity in his little corner of the world. When his character is tempted to try a new life, one greatly fueled by “plastic,” it causes his literal view of the world loses color. If Cronenberg, like Tenser, buys into the pressure, he may lose the very thing that allows his art to survive.
Beyond the layers of readings possible from Crimes, there are the out-there performances to consider. For Mortensen, he gives a physically nuanced and emotionally stunted performance that should engage. He brings the physical discomfort of his lifestyle and art to the screen, a constant reminder of his unusual life. It never distracts from the more significant issues, but certainly textures scenes in which he’s present.
Seydoux earns best in show accolades with ease, bringing her lust for more to the screen. You can read desire in her face, and she often conveys the direction of her desire in nuanced ways. She makes you feel her emotional connection with Mortensen, but easily transfers her need to push the boundaries of her body when discussing unrelated ideas with other characters. She understands how audiences view her body, and she can upend that expectation in the hands of someone like Cronenberg.
Stewart’s turn will undoubtedly create bipolar reactions because if feels like regression. It keys in on many of the ticks of her early career performances, often delivering lines in whisper and pulling anxiety out of thin air. However, as the film unfolds, the reasons for that nervous energy reveals itself. Her own lust for Tenser becomes palpable, but she masks the reason for that lust. Her performance works for this writer, but others will undoubtedly come down on the opposite side.
Cronenberg’s return may result in late-career works worthy of our attention. While Crimes of the Future does not strike masterpiece status (like many of his greater works have), it certainly invites discussion. The visual language employed by Cronenberg and his odd penchant for body-like production design will disturb. The actual makeup work and organ design will intrigue some of his most devoted fans. If you are up for a trip to a weird place, Crimes of the Future delivers, but will be a stay-away for the non-diehards.
Alan’s Grade: 7 out of 10