David Cronenberg, the master of body horror is back for his first foray into the genre since 1999’s eXistenZ and his first feature since 2014’s Map to the Stars. Crimes of the Future is a bloody good time, as body horror morphs into body black comedy in a tale of human evolution run amok, a source of concern for some and entertainment for others.
Cronenberg’s History of Violence/Eastern Promises star Viggo Mortensen is performance artist Saul Tenser. Though the dusty city (Athens, Greece, in reality) Tenser inhabits seems so old that it would be unsurprising if Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre returned from the dead to walk its mean streets, it is, in fact, a technologically advanced world where one machine cradles Saul in its bony arms to aid his sleep and another to help him eat. He needs the intervention: The thing that has made him a performance art star, his body’s constant invention of new organs, also makes daily living uncomfortable. The most horrifying element of Crimes of the Future isn’t body horror but the sounds that emanate from Saul, throat clicks and clearings that speak to his physical discomfort and a body at war with itself.
With his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux), a former trauma surgeon, and a repurposed autopsy table, Saul transforms his maladies into art. He is not the only one, as scarification and surgeries are popular fodder for public consumption.
As one character puts it, “Everyone wants to be a performance artist these days. It’s all the rage.”
What’s happening to Saul and others is evolution gone wrong, according to Wippet (Don McKellar), at the National Organ Registry, a shadowy organization tracking the changing human body. He and associate Timlin (Kristen Stewart) are particularly taken with Saul. They are not the only ones. Lurking around the edges of his and Caprice’s life are Router (Nadia Litz) and Berst (Tanaya Beatty), the technicians who maintain Saul’s machines; Cope (Welket Bungué), a vice detective with a shadowy agenda; and Lang (Scott Speedman), ever chomping on what looks like purple candy bars, and the apparent head of a mysterious cabal.
In The Graduate, a well-meaning adult utters the word “Plastics” to Benjamin Braddock as a suggestion for the new college graduate’s career prospects. Crimes of the Future examines where such a livelihood might have led, to a miserable tomorrow as the body attempts to come to terms with all that plastic waste. At least, that is a working theory.
While Saul cuts a tragic figure – he just never looks or sounds well – and there are several disturbing moments in the film, the overall vibe of Crimes of the Future is comic. It is partially because the performance art – not just Saul and Caprice’s but also their contemporaries’ work – coupled with the hipster audiences watching it plays as social satire. But it is also because much of the dialogue is frequently hilarious. And while Mortensen, Seydoux, and Stewart may be the stars of the film, its true shining light is McKellar. True, he gets the best lines as the timid bureaucrat whose job collecting data on people like Saul gives him a leg up on formulating theories about what’s gone wrong with human anatomy. But it is not just the words he says but how he says them that amps up the dark humor.
It’s been a crime that Cronenberg has been off the big screen for almost a decade. It’s wonderful to have him back and in such fine, outré form. –Pam Grady