Cannes Review: With ‘Crimes of the Future’, horror-master David Cronenberg entices your inhumanly appetite and gets under your skin [Grade: B]
With a star-studded cast and a sexy marketing campaign to precede it, Crimes of the Future promises an electrifying affair to be beholden, enjoyed, and walked out of. Body horror master David Cronenberg returns to a very early film of his but only to borrow its exciting name, and his newest has little to nothing in common with the experimental craze of his 1970 work. Fascination with humankind’s corporeal shell is a theme which permeates the Canadian director’s whole filmography but it’s only natural to wonder what’s the novelty he will be bringing in at this juncture in time when posthumanism and cinema of the nonhuman has reigned supreme. He still has a few tricks up his sleeve.
Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux) are forerunners in the avant-garde world with their extensive incision-based performances: in public, they exercise a particular type of surgery, alongside organ tattooing, and the variables around experimenting with the newly-grown organs in Saul’s body. Yes, Saul is at the film’s center from beginning to end: his body either fully cloaked in black, or exposed to lacerations and stitching. We are privy to his daily routine as he melds with the organic-looking machinery to aid him evolve – from a sleeping pod to an automatic feeding chair, it seems like all the world’s technology as well as biology has been put to service this man’s miraculous body. Perhaps the decision to make a white man (star)’s body the temple and the lab for the new humanity serves better purpose than if it was a non-white or non-male one but it begs the question: how much can we rely on change when resorting to the same phallocentric materialism?
It’s no surprise that the film offers a tightly-knit world, whose mythology dominates both style and content and it’s a pleasurable world to inhabit to the point when the 107 minute runtime seems way too slim to cover the most beguiling grounds left unexplored. For example, the Organ Registry’s bureaucratic framework, the supervision of quirky duo Wippet (Don McKellar) and Timlin (Kristen Stewart) and their involvement in the underground Organ Beauty Pageant; the uniting logic of labor and murder which haunts the superstructure; the role of art in politics – all of these are just hinted at, as the film rushes to jump through its many narrative hoops at a frantic pace. We are left yearning for more: in terms of sexual charge, political danger, and actor chemistry. Even Timlin’s jittery plea to be cut and knifed by Tenser himself fails to deliver the genuine S/M tension implied in the ephemeral restructuring of sexual arousal as a mimetic desire to be sliced open.
The plot’s subversive potential when it comes to sex is its most potent feature, one that reveals (heteronormaltively) sexual activities to have always been about under-skin contact, rather than surface exploration. Even if feminist scholars have recently instated surfaces and skin as the battlefield for both beautification and injuries, Cronenberg makes it easy for himself by taking pain of the occasion. In Crimes of the Future, sleep is the only place where pain still exists, which makes the surgeries’ eroticism credible in the first place. However, this interest in organ-deep aesthetics proves necessary for the director to make his ecological point: in this skewed post-human evolution there might be a possibility for plastic to be digested and surprisingly, this also happens to be the most contested bit of narrative, the crux of people’s anxieties about the future of the humankind.
“Body is reality” is a truly wonderful slogan, and Crimes of the Future’s tantalizing devotion to sensual gore asserts it as an instant classic: its conceptually rich premise simply begs for a rewatch. But it’s also true that here, as in all of Cronenberg’s films, there is also an underlying assumption that everything considered ‘unnatural’, as thrilling as it is, deserves to be persecuted and, ultimately, confined to a rather conservative logic. Even with its open (but upsettingly abrupt) ending, the cult director’s newest is a feast you’ll probably leave even hungrier than you were in the first place. Not necessarily a bad thing for your posthuman-sex-as-surgery-loving evolution, though.
This review is from the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. NEON will release Crimes of the Future in the U.S on June 3.