In Crimes of the Future, an underground movement of performance artists try understanding a world in which humans grow new organs on a regular basis and pain, for some reason, has vanished. The director, of course, is David Cronenberg, back with his first film in eight years and just the second original screenplay he has developed since 1999’s eXistenZ. Since its announcement last year Crimes has been marketed as Cronenberg’s long-awaited return to body horror, a lubricious realm that he hasn’t fully embraced since… 1999’s Existenz. Miraculously, it delivers on that promise: a film of erotic surgery and designer organs; in which a live autopsy is performed on a young boy for a crowd of trendy onlookers; and in which the recently regal Kristen Stewart gives a performance so tweaked it might actually be the embodiment of edging.
Whether Cronenberg ever truly went away from this kind of cinema is subject to debate. For all the hype, it was tempting in weeks leading up to Cannes to wonder: does any of this still work in 2022? Could the master, just turned 79, have lost his touch? (Narrator: he hasn’t.) Recycling the title of one of his earliest projects (though the similarities with that particular film stop there), Crimes sees him further explore certain themes that have haunted his work for decades: a belief that the body is something open to modification (if not fully disposable), and the futurist notion that organisms and machines might one day meld, with the innate eroticism that such an idea entails.
If “surgery is the new sex,” as Stewart shakily exclaims, Crimes makes a convincing argument. The story takes place in a not-too-distant future where a cult is forming around the delicious notion that humans will one day be able to digest plastics. (This idea, a little gem of misanthropocene science fiction, is so beautifully neat you wonder how no one thought of it before. Then it became reality and he couldn’t be more excited.) Experimental surgeries are being conducted to make this possible for regular humans; but it becomes apparent that a biological plastic-eater has miraculously been born; in the opening we watch as a young boy devours a waste basket.
Crimes centers on Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen, dressed like a Sith) and Caprice (Léa Seydoux), lovers and artists who chop each other up for a crowd of avant-garde enthusiasts. “Performance art is all the rage now,” one character says (if a touch unconvincingly; for all its joys, Crimes of The Future is sometimes let down by its supporting cast). Their act relies on Saul growing new organs Caprice then removes using an elaborate surgery bed that could easily have been designed by HR Giger. (The same is true of Saul’s sleeping pod, a contraption with suction pads resembling chicken feet that introduces new hormones into his body; or the hilarious chair that helps him digest his breakfast.) In a theme that has endured in so much of Cronenberg’s cinema, the film asks whether one should resist the body’s urge to transform or simply give in to that desire. We know which side he tends to take.
Through this baroque art scene Cronenberg allows his imagination to run wild: there is a wonderful rococo photoshoot in which a woman has deep incisions cut into her face while watching a scene from the director’s Crash. Saul also visits a rival gallery where a man with ears dotted all over him performs an elaborate dance. (He later remarks to Caprice about the gallery’s impressive attendance—pain may no longer be a factor in this dystopia, but ego remains.) The film is at its very best in these moments: unsettling, erotically charged, and brilliantly realized.
For the strength of those intoxicating sequences, Crimes loses considerable steam when looking outward. One of its failings is to never generate a strong sense of some larger world, and you might find yourself wondering what impact this new flesh has had on society. (In a film not short on exposition, it seems a strange oversight.) What we get instead is a great “A” storyline and some half-cooked shady agencies to prop it up: an organization called the Directory that wishes to monitor new organs (it’s here that Stewart shows up as a mousy, horny bureaucrat) and an odd crime squad called New Vice. Neither, by film’s close, could be called coherent subplots, let alone worthy antagonists.
It’s interesting to see a film like Crimes in the context of Cannes, a festival that lives and dies off the promise of at least one or two annual scandals. Talk of walkouts (yes, even from the director himself) have been overblown in recent days (at least to these eyes). Whatever the case, Cronenberg’s genius has never been about the initial shock; his films linger on the skin, slither towards an orifice. “I think a lot about his movies. I wish I didn’t,” Martin Scorsese once wrote of his friend from across the border. Crimes of the Future ends out of nowhere—with a bracing nod to Dreyer. It’s dazzling and uneven, seductive and flawed, and only he could have made it. There’s no beating the genuine article.
Crimes of the Future premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and will be released on June 3.