Cannes 2022 review: Crimes of the Future (David Cronenberg)

“But on the whole Crimes of the Future leaves the lingering feeling that there could, and should, have been more, as it fails to shape its enticing ideas into a coherent vision.”

In 1970 a young Canadian director named David Cronenberg made his debut with a film in which the entire female population of our planet has been killed. The protagonist of the film, Tripod, encounters several men over the course of the film that are trying to adapt to a world without women; one of them continuously grows new organs that are removed from his body, a performative act mimicking childbirth. The title of that film? Crimes of the Future.

More than half a century later Cronenberg is a much-lauded iconoclast director, a conjurer of dystopian worlds and societies in which sex and violence have often lost their impact on desensitized characters who seek their pleasures in acts of body horror. Most famous of these is 1996’s Crash (which incidentally also premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and won a Jury Prize), about an underground subculture who get their sexual kicks from car crashes. And a quarter century onwards from that iconic film Cronenberg returns to the Croisette with another film about a dying world inhabited by people for whom the ‘old sex’, as they call it, no longer does it, and in which a character grows new organs inside his body to be removed in performative acts that draw crowds of people who derive pleasure from watching. Its title? Crimes of the Future. Cronenberg has come full circle, and though his latest film is far from the best in his oeuvre (one could argue that indeed Crash at the halfway mark of that 50-year journey was his peak) one can only hope that this is not the last film in an illustrious career of creating disturbing imagery and provocative think pieces.

In a not-so-distant future, mankind is adapting to its synthetic surroundings. Pain is no longer a factor in this world, as bodies have evolved in such a way that pain receptors are no longer part of our physique. One of the few people to still have them is Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen, a frequent collaborator of Cronenberg). He sleeps in a womb-like ‘bed’ specifically designed to monitor his pain and provide relief where possible through skeletal arms and bony fingers. The company that created this, LifeFormWare, also provides him with a chair to help him eat, as Saul finds it increasingly difficult to swallow his food. Saul is a well-known performance artist who grows new organs in his body, organs whose functions are unknown and will remain so, since they are removed from his body by his assistant Caprice (Léa Seydoux, in se(y)ductive femme fatale mode) in elaborate acts in front of captivated crowds, after which she tattoos the removed body parts.

Saul is not the only one with these organ-growing abilities, which has led to the establishment of a (still) secret government organization, the National Organ Registry, tasked with tracking and documenting new organs. The Registry is led by Wippet (Don McKellar) and his assistant Timlin (Kristen Stewart, whose natural nervousness fits her character having a girlish crush on Saul), a duo fascinated both professionally and personally by Saul’s performances. So is Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman), the father of a pre-teen who was murdered by his mother because the boy only ate plastic, explicitly designed by Dotrice to do so. Dotrice asks Saul to perform an autopsy on the boy during one of his performances, thereby revealing new organs that could turn synthetic material (plastic) into nutrients, ushering in a new phase in the development of the human body.

A meditation on the ability of our bodies to adapt to the technological advances around us and what those adaptations could lead to, the problem with Crimes of the Future is that it remains just that: a meditation. The premise of the film allows characters to wax philosophical, saying things like “Surgery is the new sex” with a straight face, but never does Crimes of the Future do more than scratch the surface, failing to dig deeper into the guts (pardon the pun) of its ideas. One of its characters posits that Saul’s newly created organs are ‘designer cancer’, but what does that actually mean? Crimes of the Future fails to elucidate or elaborate on the questions it raises, making it a fascinating conversation starter that deliberately declines to partake in the conversation. Cronenberg says the film is about the “crimes committed by the human body against itself“, and even he admits that this sounds mysterious and confusing.

There is also the ‘how’, of course, and as with any Cronenberg film the style is a big part of our enjoyment (or not, if you’re not in tune with Cronenberg’s aesthetic). Dimly lit, cavernous environments are the stage for various displays of body horror, including a man covered in ears and a woman with stylized gashes in her face. Holding the middle ground between the Philip K. Dick-inspired noir look of Blade Runner and the grotesque emptiness of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, Crimes of the Future looks fantastic. Mortensen as a world-weary object of art stumbles through the film, seemingly as confused as the viewer about the story he is in. His two supporting actresses fare better, not in the least because they get juicier material to work with; Seydoux in particular is an alluring fit for Cronenberg’s universe. But on the whole Crimes of the Future leaves the lingering feeling that there could, and should, have been more, as it fails to shape its enticing ideas into a coherent vision.

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