starring Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux, Kristen Stewart, Scott Speedman
written and directed by David Cronenberg
by Angelo Muredda "It's not a completely bad feeling, at least not uninteresting," muses performance artist Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) about his scratchy throat during a quiet moment in David Cronenberg's career-capping Crimes of the Future, a tender affair about listening to and affirming one's aging, sick, and mutable body--contrary to all the pre-hype about walkouts and the director's supposed return to his grimy horror roots. Saul lives with a radical disease called Accelerated Evolution Syndrome, which causes him to rapidly spawn superfluous organs. Surgical and life partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux) removes them on stage in underground live shows that fall somewhere between medical procedures you might gawk at on YouTube and ecstatic religious ceremonies. Saul is a full partner in these sensual spectacles, writhing in an open sarcophagus while Caprice mythologizes his new developments like a curator at a Francis Bacon show. Here, though, Saul is simply taking the opportunity to mind the sensations produced by his latest corporeal work of art, noting his symptoms with the observational humour and delicacy of previous Cronenberg protagonists who double as archivists of their changing forms. It's a trait common not just to scientists spliced with houseflies but to most people living with chronic illnesses.
That attention to the will of the misbehaving body, described accurately by one prudish character as "insurrectional," is a classic Cronenberg conceit, casting as far back as his first film by the same title--no relation, save thematic predilections for body modification--as well as The Brood, a recent divorcee's nightmare of what could happen if his estranged wife truly allowed herself to embrace her bad feelings, manifesting them first as tumours, then as rage-filled children. Listening to the body as it expresses itself, though, is something the filmmaker has typically seen as an illusory goal--as in the climax to Cosmopolis, where former systems analyst Benno (Paul Giamatti) tells his old technocratic billionaire boss Eric (Robert Pattinson) that his efforts to dominate currency are as fruitless as his attempts to dominate his body into submission and health by giving himself daily prostate exams. "You should have listened to your prostate," Benno says, suggesting that marvelling at the harmlessly asymmetrical "misshape" in his body would have been more fruitful than applying statistical models or science to master it--or the Yuan, for that matter.
Despite his earned reputation for perversion and his avowed interest in novel expressions of, per Videodrome, the "new flesh," there has often been a hesitance behind Cronenberg's curiosity about what bodies might do free from the auspices of government and societal regulation--if they were allowed to go "all the way through it, right to the end," per The Brood's experimental psychotherapy. Consider Seth Brundle's truncated genetic odyssey in The Fly, in which he goes from waxing messianic about the possibilities of his new hybrid form--which he hopes will be passed on to his offspring--to seeing himself as a humbled cancer patient collecting his fallen body parts in the medicine cabinet, to becoming a nearly unrecognizable monster begging for euthanasia. The possibilities of Brundle living on in his degrading body or further Brundleflies inheriting their father's hideous traits are never seriously entertained. (At least not until the inevitable attempt at a Cronenberg-free franchise in The Fly II.) Such altered states in Cronenberg's films are a thrilling thing, "juicy with meaning," as Caprice says here, but they're rarely built to last or be passed on, presumably because the insurrectional body is hard to listen to when it's threatening to harm you or those around you.
Crimes of the Future positions itself as a kind of thematic referendum on whether such changes are tenable or whether the best way to mind them isn't to cut them right out. It's the most robust work of science-fiction Cronenberg has yielded yet, a brainy and moving speculative essay, with clear dramatic stakes, that asks which is the greater offense: to allow novel physical states and ways of being to spread if they are potentially dangerous to either the host or polite society, or to nip them in the bud. The brutal filicide that opens the film bluntly re-poses the question The Fly tiptoes around with its anxious third-act abortion plot, where the pregnant Veronica (Geena Davis) decides to abort Brundle's fetus--to which he replies, in an aw-shucks sort of way, "Too bad," as if he'd have liked to see a sequel where Brundle 2.0 goes off to Little League. Cronenberg isn't just trading one cultural talking point for another in upgrading his hot-button discourse from reproductive rights and eugenics to filicide--he's moving from theoretical symbols of the future (fetuses that may or may not turn out to be monstrous) to concrete ones: disabled children who are living and breathing and very much have rights.
Here, a mother murders an actual (not hypothetical) child, her eight-year-old son Brecken (Sozos Sotiris), who has the nasty habit of eating plastic bins by dissolving them with his enzyme-destroying drool, rather like a fly. When Saul visits her in prison to decide whether he and Caprice should perform a public autopsy at the request of his father, Lang (Scott Speedman), who wants the world to see what his martyred son was made of, she frames Brecken as the corrupt offspring of Lang's own science experiment, his leadership of a cult of environmentalist radicals who train themselves to consume only the industrial byproducts of human waste, i.e., plastic candy bars. But Brecken apparently developed his unusual physiological form and habits independent of that extreme new-age diet, either by proximity to his father's regimen or by happy accident. Like it or not, his deformities are congenital; he was born into and raised in a world that doesn't take kindly to marvels with unsanctioned bodies. A world not unlike this one, Cronenberg is possibly suggesting, in that it holds potential children in higher esteem than actual problem children. This dystopia even has a National Organ Registry staffed by two twitchy freaks named Wippet (Don McKellar) and Timlin (Kristen Stewart), the latter of whose bureaucratic need to file such anomalies away into her tiny office drawers is at odds with her erotic fixation on Saul's physical differences, making her something of a next-generation amputee devotee.
As in his digressive and episodic novel Consumed, Cronenberg drifts a bit too often from this complex, knotty, humanist predicament, which mirrors Saul's evolving conflict over his surgical showpieces: are they a form of self-expression or of self-denial? Cronenberg is on shakier ground with his occasionally overwritten and overly cute dystopian tangents, which read as though he's collapsed several stalled projects' worth of world-building details into one. Beyond his zeal for opening his son's "naturally unnatural" insides up for the world to see, for instance, Lang and his cult of plastic protein-bar snackers are not especially well-developed. Nor are the surgery junkies we see roaming the streets at several points, relegated to a cheeky but pat expository line or two about how pain and infection have largely been eliminated in this future. A set-piece about rival performance artists who deliberately court bodily trauma and surgical modification for social engagement makes only the murkiest point about young poseurs--and perhaps body-horror disciples after the filmmakers' own crown--crowding into the authentic body-performance space, although there is the shading of an interesting debate about how alternative communities either shut out, shift to accommodate, or surrender to the youngest members among their ranks. ("He can't even hear through them," Saul amusingly whines about a wunderkind who's grown ears all over his face, sounding like an old-school disabled artist scoffing at the new crop with whom he now has to share space. That is to say, he's offended for his own form of cancer, which he's come by honestly.)
Yet it feels churlish to dwell on these airless interludes in a film that otherwise takes root squarely in the gut, where even the disabled protagonist's adaptive technology--a skeletal standing chair that smoothes out the piping of Saul's esophagus and digestive system while he eats, and a pulsing, veiny, organic bed that nurtures his growths while he sleeps--feels material in a way current adaptive technology does not. With his wryness, his vulnerability, and his shock of white hair, Mortensen makes a surprisingly apt physical doppelgänger for his director. There's genuine pathos to a moment where he admits to Timlin, who's vibrating in ecstasy before his anomalous form (to Saul's embarrassment), that what he's saying with what she calls his "body-art stuff" is, "I don't like what's going on with my body." Whether this is a pre-transition allegory or an aging artist's late recognition of his own increasing reliance on medical interventions and adaptive technologies, it's poignant, suffused with a real awareness of what it feels like to be caught between identifying with and repudiating the skin one lives in. And there's profound beauty and grace to the indelible final moment, a close-up that's a clear hat-tip to Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc but also to Cronenberg's oeuvre itself. Crimes of the Future's coda is an earnest, irony-free, and forty-year-belated addendum to, if not a redo of, James Woods's TV programmer proclaiming "Long live the new flesh" at the end of Videodrome, tinged with an older artist's intimate knowledge of what that means.