David Cronenberg Plays the Fleshy Hits in the Evocative, Squicky Crimes of the Future: Review

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The post David Cronenberg Plays the Fleshy Hits in the Evocative, Squicky Crimes of the Future: Review appeared first on Consequence.

The Pitch: In a near-future world where pollution and technological advancement have led human beings to develop “Accelerated Evolution Syndrome” (i.e. the spontaneous development of new organs and bodily configurations), bodily modifications are the norm and pain is virtually a thing of the past. Save, it seems, for Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), a celebrity performance artist whose gimmick is tattooing, then surgically (and publicly) removing, the new organs his body generates in elaborate showcases with his creative partner/probably-lover Caprise (Léa Seydoux).

He lives a life of constant pain, one which no number of bio-technological devices — floating orchid-like beds that attach fleshy tentacles to his limbs, living high chairs that rock him as he eats breakfast so he can keep his food down — can suitably alleviate. Yet it’s that pain, and the desire to excise it from his body, that makes him the best, a true artist in a world of faux-edgy poseurs who bold fake ears onto themselves to reach for the same notoriety.

It also attracts no number of other interested parties, from a pair of bureaucrats at the newly minted National Organ Registry (Don McKellar’s Whippet and Kristen Stewart’s frazzled fangirl Timlin) to a detective (Welket Bungué) who uses him as a stool pigeon for illegal body modders. And it might lead Saul to his most ambitious show yet, as a grieving father and activist (Scott Speedman) urges him to perform his next public autopsy on a dead body — his son’s — promising Earth-shattering revelations for his audience.

Long Live the New Flesh, Same As The Old Flesh: It’d be the understatement of a lifetime to say that horror legend David Cronenberg is no stranger to cinematic body horror: With films like Scanners, Crash, Videodrome, The Fly, and others, the Canadian auteur practically wrote the fleshy rulebook on the genre. His films are dreamlike, meandering ruminations on the blurred lines between human, animal, and technology, testing the limits of what our blood-and-pus-filled meat cages are capable of (and what they might be ready for in the future).

Crimes of the Future is no different, a welcome return to the filmmaker’s body-bending concerns that evokes his prior meditations on the flesh — even as it scrambles a bit to find something new to say that he hasn’t already before.

Crimes of the Future (NEON)
Crimes of the Future (NEON)

Crimes of the Future (NEON)

Don’t get it twisted, Cronenberg on comparative autopilot is still incredibly thought-provoking, elegant, darkly funny cinema. Douglas Koch’s cinematography fills the world with deep shadows and grain, evincing a world piled high with trash that those of us who are left must simply wade through. His shadows lovingly caress longtime Cronenberg collaborator Carol Spier’s sinewy, organic production design with all the eroticism of its characters (Stewart’s Timlin excitedly whispers to Saul early on that “surgery is the new sex”).

The devices of the future are a heady mix of Giger-esque ridges and boney joints, mixed with clunky analog computers and ring-mounted cameras just as likely to give you tetanus as anything else. The script, which Cronenberg has been shopping around for twenty years, still feels enigmatic and evocative, if more than a little aimless and overstuffed with the myriad plotlines Saul and co. have to navigate. (Even Howard Shore’s droning synth score feels as ominous and awe-striking as his previous collabs with the man.)

Like Crash before it, Crimes of the Future shows off Cronenberg’s interest in the sexuality of bodily violation and pain. Seydoux slinks around Tenser’s sarcophagus-like surgical cocoon during their shows, manipulating the controls at her stomach with masturbatory casualness. Open chest wounds become avenues for mouths, tongues, scalpels, each greeted with a pleased sigh upon entry.

Life in Plastic, It’s Fantastic: But there are at least a couple of new angles that keep Crimes of the Future from feeling like Just Another Cronenberg Body Horror Flick. That spin, it seems, lies at least partially in Crimes‘ opening shot: A capsized oil tanker, half-covered by the tide as a young boy sits on the beach in the foreground, eyeing a rusty tin can with ravenous hunger. The boy, as we’ll learn, is hungry, but not for organic food: His mother finds him crouched in the bathroom minutes later, chomping on a plastic trash bin and loving it.

This, and the horrifying fate that befalls him right after, come closest to explaining what Cronenberg means by his title: humanity’s future will be marked not just by the crimes we’re committing against nature, but the ways our bodies will change to adapt (and the violence that comes from resisting those changes).

Crimes of the Future (NEON)
Crimes of the Future (NEON)

Crimes of the Future (NEON)

The more pertinent game for Cronenberg, though, seems to be exploring Saul Tenser’s celebrity, with Mortenson’s raspy, choked performance and shock-white hair evoking the filmmaker himself. Cronenberg depicts him as a reluctant visionary, one flanked by imitators and fans alike, all of whom want to flatter him and get something out of it. When he’s not working himself, he spies on other shows, cloaked in a silly black ninja outfit, to see what his contemporaries are doing. The pencil-pushers at the “Bureau of New Vice” (calling it “vice” sounds sexier, they claim) are little more than breathless admirers, Timlin especially; Stewart makes the most out of limited screentime as a woman innately tempted by the eroticism of flesh-cutting.

In the midst of all his futurism, Cronenberg takes a few key moments to remark on the nature of creativity, a metaphor made apt by Saul and Caprice’s dynamic: Is he the artist because he grows the organs, or is she because she tattoos and removes them? Does the art come from the raw material or its manipulation?

There are a lot of ideas in here, almost too many to fit inside one motion picture. Subplots around rigged “Inner Beauty Pageants” (where Saul’s nominated for “Best Original Organ”) disappear as quickly as they appear, and the film seems to end more abruptly than it should. The specifics of what Bungué’s detective wants with Saul, and the fate of Speedman’s nascent movement of synth-digesting humans, are left teasingly incomplete, to the point of feeling half-formed. But Cronenberg seems content to just give us a glimpse at an existential world where humanity is on the cusp of changing into something other, glancing momentarily at the numerous ways people might deal with it.

The Verdict: There’s no small amount of vision in Crimes of the Future, even if it treads upon familiar ground for Cronenberg’s idiosyncratic, original interests. If you’re a diehard fan of the man, you’ll still enjoy his latest, even if it doesn’t exactly break the mold of eXistenZ or his other fleshy experiments.

And yet, in the years since his prime, it seems the world is just gradually catching up with his vision: climate change is real, and the COVID-19 pandemic is forever changing the way we see each other and how we use technology to interact with the world. Turns out Cronenberg didn’t really have to change the rulebook to stay relevant. He only had to wait for the rest of the world to match his sense of depravity.

Where’s It Playing? Crimes of the Future puts you in theater seats (that are hopefully not made from undulating cartilage and bone) starting June 3rd.

Trailer:

David Cronenberg Plays the Fleshy Hits in the Evocative, Squicky Crimes of the Future: Review
Clint Worthington

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