'Crimes of the Future' director David Cronenberg addresses Cannes walkouts and why the Kristen Stewart film isn't 'body horror'

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The Cannes Film Festival is famous for providing an annual line-up of the best in international cinema, but it's even more famous as the place where audiences stage mid-movie walkouts when they see something they don't like. At this year's just-concluded edition, all eyes were on David Cronenberg's Crimes of the Future as the movie most likely to inspire viewers to flee for the exits. The celebrated Canadian auteur predicted that kind of mass exodus himself in the run-up to the festival, certain that his beautifully cynical, and typically provocative, vision of a dystopian tomorrow would be too much for some moviegoers to tolerate.

As it turns out, though, only one person walked out of the movie's grand Cannes premiere ... and it was Cronenberg himself. "I had to have a pee," he tells Yahoo Entertainment, laughing. "So the only one who walked out of the movie was the director! I can't say I'm disappointed — I make movies for people to stay and watch." (Watch our interview above.)

It should be noted that fifteen people reportedly walked out of a separate press and industry screening, prompting Crimes co-star, Kristen Stewart, to rally around her director. "Every single gaping, weird bruise in his movies, it makes my mouth open. You wanna lean in toward it," the actress remarked at a Cannes press conference. "And it never repulses me ever. The way I feel, it is through really visceral desire and that's the only reason we're alive. We're pleasure sacks."

Stewart gets an eyeful of Cronenberg's trademark body horror in Crimes of the Future. (Photo: Neon/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Kristen Stewart gets an eyeful of Cronenberg's trademark body horror in Crimes of the Future. (Photo: Neon/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Cronenberg himself is willing to give the fleeing journalists the benefit of the doubt. "It's quite normal because they walk in and out," he explains. "Sometimes they're writing on another movie, and sometimes they just drop in out of curiosity." The director also says that his initial prediction about larger walkouts was based on his experience screening his 1996 film, Crash, at Cannes.

"That film did have a lot of walkouts," he recalls. "I think about a quarter of the audience left. Really, they were outraged, and I thought, 'Wow, maybe it'll happen again.' Honestly, I never know how the audience is going to react. People say, 'What do you want the audience to feel or do after they see your movie?' And my answer is: 'I have no idea.'"

Audiences are certainly having all kinds of feels coming out of Crimes of the Future, which opened in the general release immediately after its Cannes debut. Set in a climate change-afflicted future that has altered human biology, the movie follows celebrated performing arts duo, Saul Tenser and Caprice (Viggo Mortensen and Léa Seydoux), whose unique specialty is growing new organs that are then extracted in public view. Stewart plays an investigator with the National Organ Registry and ultimate organ-growing fangirl who delivers the piece of dialogue that becomes the movie's tagline: "Surgery is the new sex."

CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 24: (L to R) US actor Viggo Mortensen, French actress Lea Seydoux, US actress Kristen Stewart and British-Canadian actor Scott Speedman attend a photocall for the film âCrimes Of the Futureâ at the 75th annual Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France on May 24, 2022. (Photo by Mustafa Yalcin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
From l to r: Viggo Mortensen, Lea Seydoux, David Cronenberg, Stewart and Scott Speedman attend the Crimes of the Future premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. (Photo by Mustafa Yalcin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Although Cronenberg wrote the Crimes script two decades ago, it functions as a kind of career culmination, calling back themes and imagery he's employed in such "body horror" favorites as Scanners, The Fly and Existenz. Not that he'd ever apply that label to his own work. "'Body horror' is not my term, and I wouldn't describe my work that way at all," he says. "Honestly the question of genre for me is a marketing question ... but not a creative question. It doesn't give me anything to help me make the movie better or make the movie at all."

Instead of a body horror film, Cronenberg instead regards Crimes as a modest proposal to modern moviegoers about what we're going to do with the plastic that's filling landfills and oceans around the globe. In the film, some humans have even evolved to be able to consume plastic; that's the case with a young boy named Brecken, whose mother is so unnerved by the child's eating habits that she kills him. His body is then claimed by his father (Scott Speedman), who offers Saul and Caprice the chance to perform an autopsy for a paying audience.

"I'm saying to the audience, 'We're destroying the Earth with plastic, so what do we do with that?'" Cronenberg explains. "We're now finding microplastics in our bloodstream, which I didn't know twenty years ago. But I did anticipate that we could say: 'What if we could eat plastic? What if we could actually use it for something?' So that's my proposal. I accept that it might be satirical, it might be absurd, but I ask my characters to take it seriously."

Surgery is the new sex in the grim future imagined by Crimes of the Future. (Photo: Neon/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Surgery is the new sex in the grim future imagined by Crimes of the Future. (Photo: Neon/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Even though Cronenberg balks at the term "body horror," Crimes of the Future isn't for the easily squeamish. The surgery scenes in particular might cause some squirming — especially the final scenes where Saul performs Brecken's autopsy. That's the moment where the normally unflappable Mortensen and Seydoux felt a tinge of fear. "I was scared when I saw the body of Brecken," the No Time to Die star admits. "That was very real and shocking."

"When you first see him lying there, there was something really disturbing [about it]," Mortensen adds. "The crew was very quiet. You know it's not real, but it really seems so real."

Crimes of the Future is Mortensen's fourth collaboration with Cronenberg after their partnership began with 2005's A History of Violence. And the actor specifically infused Cronenberg-isms into his performance. "There are these sounds he makes sometimes, and I took some of those," he reveals. "He has problems digesting and breathing, and can't sit or stand still without having to move his position — he's ill at ease in his body."

"It's his sense of humor, too," Mortensen continues. "Saul has a very dry, intelligent sense of humor and David's like that. He often says things without smiling that are actually really funny; you'll walk away and a minute later you go, 'Oh, I see: he's making fun of me!' So I borrowed some of that."

Viggo Mortensen and Kristen Stewart in David Cronenberg's Crimes of the Future. (Photo: Neon/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Mortensen and Stewart in Crimes of the Future. (Photo: Neon/Courtesy Everett Collection)

While much of the pre-release press surrounding Crimes focused on potential walkouts, Cronenberg hopes that general audiences look beyond the "shock value" and see a more complex and layered piece. "I never looked at this as a horror movie," he explains. "That's never what I felt I was taking part in. When you sit back and watch the movie — and Kristen has said this, too — it's very sweet. It's really a love story, and I think that gets lost amidst the stuff that gets the headlines."

Video produced by Anne Lilburn and edited by Jimmie Rhee

Crimes of the Future is playing in theaters now