Ahead of its Cannes premiere, rumours of untold horrors were swirling around David Cronenberg’s latest – fuelled in part by the Canadian maven himself, who claimed its investigation of the inner recesses of the human body would have audiences flocking for the exits in its opening minutes.
In truth, while they were a few absconders, Crimes of the Future – named after his 1970 film but otherwise unconnected – turns out to be a fairly mild entry to the weirdcore end of his canon. It recalls early ’90s Cronenberg: Naked Lunch in its embrace of tactile design, and Crash in its gesturing towards some (very) alternative forms of sexual gratification. But it sets out to provoke thought, rather than extreme reactions. You can put the sick bag down.
Metamorphosis and evolution have always been Cronenberg preoccupations and they’re at the heart of Crimes of the Future’s broken-future world. Humanity is in the doldrums, skulking in the nooks and crannies of a climate changed Earth. Thanks to a new disease called Accelerated Evolution Syndrome, neo-organs grow unbidden and pain is all but eliminated. Organic new tech has evolved with it to keep it all in check – like an orchid bed whose tendrils attach to the sleeper – and desktop surgery is a thing. In this world, people don’t work from home, they operate from it.
There’s enough here to hope that Cronenberg still has a masterpiece or two in him
A humanity without feeling grasps at anything that can shock, and here it’s performance artist Saul Tenser (a growling Viggo Mortensen) and his ex-surgeon partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux) who help provide it. He grows new organs and she flamboyantly removes them at packed shows, using surgical scalpels operated via a device that looks like an Xbox controller redesigned by HR Giger.
There’s plenty of signs of Cronenberg’s bone-dry wit in the world-building (the law enforcement agency’s motto is ‘No crime like the present’) and on-the-nose dialogue (‘surgery is the new sex,’ whispers Kristen Stewart’s bureaucrat earnestly). The excellent Howard Shore score underpins it all with a classical grandeur, while Douglas Koch’s lighting bathes it in gorgeous noirish shadows.
But while gesturing at a plot involving a radical fringe group and the mystery-shrouded body of a child, Crimes of the Future is prone to drift aimlessly from one cheese-dream set-up to the next. And at times, it’s all a bit wooden and camp, with the cast occasionally approaching it like a tonal puzzle they haven’t quite solved. A soulful Seydoux strikes the right notes as the surgeon-artist seduced by the possibilities afforded to art by this bonkers, ever-morphing new world.
Still, the idea of an artist spilling his guts to a baying public – and the cost of that intimate but often transactional relationship – is intriguingly articulated. There’s more than enough here to hope that Cronenberg still has a masterpiece or two yet to be emerge from within.
Crimes of the Future premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.