The near-future of Crimes of the Future is marked by the progression of medical technology. And the progression of human evolution in the form of biological mutations. For some, vestigial organs and appendages serve as performance art pieces. Inner beauty takes on new meaning in a world like this. Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and Caprice (Lea Seydoux) have grown a reputation in the art world by performing live surgeries, during which Caprice removes useless organs which Tenser’s body spontaneously produces.
It is also implied that, in this future, “surgery is the new sex.” People’s tolerance for pain has drastically increased. Tenser remains wide awake as Caprice uses a mechanical autopsy machine to open his torso and extract body parts. And he is not a unique case. Back alleys are populated with people cutting each other with knives. The art crowd is exhibited with skin being carved with scalpels, bodies cut with bone saws, with the recipient of the act apparently experiencing something akin to an orgasm. Where sadomasochism meets the sterility of the operating theater is where art is formed in this society. It’s all very haute Hellraiser.
Not everyone can bring themselves to agree, ideologically, with these changes in humanity. A new vice unit exists to police potential crimes within communities of mutated individuals. In the film’s opening — what is the most austere, shocking, and effective sequences — a distraught mother goes to homicidal lengths to deal with her young son’s compulsion to eat plastics – a side effect of his medical condition.
This world building is easily the most engaging and fascinating aspect of David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future. The lived-in-ness of this unknown future is well-established, and it does a lot of legwork in window dressing the flat plot. The detailing of technological tools replaces detailing in the setting. Production design is much more focused on the chair that rotates a person’s body as they eat to maximize digestion efficiency, and it is much less focused on the design of the anonymous city that we are placed into.
And this is a minor example of what is, for me, the most detracting feature of Crimes of the Future. Cronenberg has manifested a unique vision of the future. The alternation between the horrifying and sexualizing of the relationship between body and technology — a clear through-line of Cronenberg’s work — is the foundation for some intriguing questions related to human impulses, as well as potentially trenchant issues such as the policing of bodies deemed to be “Other.”
The film does not seem primed to address these questions, however. As Mortensen’s Tenser intervenes in the politics of this world, discussing with various characters the differing ideologies complicating these medical anomalies, the film stalls without generating much in the way of meaningful conversation. The plot occasionally moves toward something, vague intimations about the potential future of human evolution and whether it is right to put our fingers on the scales of our own development as a species (or development into a new species). But it all amounts to little more than chatter in a very chatty film.
Crimes of the Future sees Cronenberg’s body horror at a dulled edge. Visceral surgery scenes are numbed by bluntly forward-facing (and, frankly, un-erotic) eroticism. The same provocative combinations of opposites — pleasure and pain, flesh and machine — that animate Cronenberg’s best works ring hollow here. The sequences look great, but something in the emotions don’t balance correctly. It all comes off stilted.
And this emotional distance is ultimately ruinous to the film’s pointedly emotional resolution. As Tenser is immobilized by his experiences, the information he has learned and its implications, I struggled to feel anything for the character. If the broad-sweeping questions posed by this sci-fi story world is not investigated with particular depth, and the character-level arc does not emanate with meaningful emotion, all I am left with is the window dressing. Some interesting curtains, to be sure. But 100 minutes of curtains won’t suffice.
Crimes of the Future made headlines when it played at the Cannes International Film Festival and several audience members walked out. (That screening also ended with a minutes-long standing ovation. That’s Cannes, for you). Rex Reed unequivocally panned the film, describing it as a “sick and depraved barf bag of a movie.”
This all adds up to the type of sensationalist PR that gives movies a bad name and a cult following. Crimes of the Future deserves neither. Perhaps viewers should be forewarned of the violence against children in the film, but nothing else that is presented goes beyond what is par for the course in Cronenberg’s filmography. Or body horror as a genre, for that matter. The problem with Crimes of the Future is not depravity; it is the lack of a cogent follow-through on its shock value. For all of its incisions, it just doesn’t cut very deep.
Crimes of the Future: C+
As always, thanks for reading!
—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)