Crimes of the Future – Film Review
by David Turpin
Director – David Cronenberg
Writer – David Cronenberg
Stars – Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux, Kristen Stewart
At an unspecified point in the future, humanity has lost the ability to experience physical pain. Performance artists Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and Caprice (Léa Seydoux) have availed of this development to stage happenings in which the latter surgically removes vestigial organs from the former, whose ‘accelerated evolution syndrome’ swiftly replaces them with new fleshy growths. Their activities attract the attention of the National Organ Registry, one of whose operatives – Timlin (Kristen Stewart) – becomes erotically fixated upon our glazed-over heroes.
Thus begins the latest offering from the Dardennes Brothers. Just kidding, it’s David Cronenberg – making his first feature since 2014’s Maps to the Stars, and revisiting his corporeal-theoretical-sci-fi-body-horror fiefdom for the first time since 1999’s eXistenZ.
For all the visceral highlights (and how the playgrounds of the late twentieth-century throbbed with whispers of the ‘acid drop’ scenes in The Fly), Cronenberg has always been a cerebral filmmaker. There’s a certain irony in his name’s synonymity with ‘body horror’, as he is one of the last living auteurs to offer, unapologetically, a cinema of the mind. That’s why it was curious to see him turn his gaze on violence in his much-feted ‘prestige pictures’ A History of Violence (2002) and Eastern Promises (2007). How one defines ‘violence’ is, of course, a contested issue, but it has always struck this correspondent that Cronenberg in ‘classic’ mode is fairly unique in how cleanly he severs the bodily tableaux of the ‘gruesome’ from the kinetic actions of the ‘violent’. Crimes of the Future is certainly gruesome – in an anaesthetised kind of a way – but the metaphysicians will have to decide whether the ‘violence’ inherent in the dismemberment of the human body is made more or less troubling when it is ‘performed’ rather than ‘perpetrated’.
Or you could just come for the stars. As appealing as its fixity of vision and its glassily composed surface are, Crimes of the Future works best as an object lesson in how the right actors in the right parts can make hay with pretty much anything – even lengthy discussions on the evolutionary implications of digesting plastic. Mortensen is an old hand at Cronenberg, and he either takes everything he does absolutely seriously, or he has the best poker face in the business. This part doesn’t have the deceptive layers of his role in A History of Violence nor the ham appeal of his Eastern Promises turn, but it has a low-temperature magnetism of its own. Much of it involves wearing cloaks, murmuring, and being desired by much younger women. One suspects, though he would never show it, that Mr Mortensen might actually be having fun. Kristen Stewart enters enthusiastically into the spirit of things – although, disappointingly, she’s not actually in the film that much. Léa Seydoux is absolutely in her element, and she makes something oddly touching of this quintessentially Cronenbergian creation. It’s hard to imagine anybody else so precisely nailing these affectless inflections and showing such sang froid in surgery.
In truth, as much as this is pure Cronenberg, it’s also minor Cronenberg. The ideas are provocative by comparison with everything else out there but feel recycled in the context of his own filmography. The lone major departure is a budget-mandated use of Athenian, rather than Canadian, locations – and it doesn’t wholly mesh with the antiseptic flavour of the material. Still, a new film from Uncle David is always cause for celebration, even if he is just playing the hits. After all, who else’s hits include cool-headed consideration of the erotic potentiality of stomach surgery?