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In a video interview that circulated online ahead of the Cannes premiere of Crimes of the Future, David Cronenberg tells the camera that microplastics have recently been discovered in the blood of people across the planet. This unsettling, potentially apocalyptic fact he shares with an expression of unconcealed glee. The filmmaker whose name is synonymous with exploring the evolutionary possibilities of the human body merging with technology was proven prophetic.
This may help explain why he gave his new film the same title as one of his earliest works from 1970, even though it’s not a remake. Crimes of the Future redux, his first feature in eight years and his first time working from an original script since 1999’s eXistenZ, isn’t just a return to the signature body horror genre he had largely left behind, it’s also a summation of sorts. Elements from across his oeuvre reappear and the impression is that he’s revisiting his earlier hypotheses in light of new evidence. The cancer described in the original Crimes of the Future that causes a man to spontaneously grow unknown organs here afflicts the protagonist, Saul (Viggo Mortensen); his vulva-like bed and the chair made of bone and gristle that in some obscure way assuage his condition are new iterations of the organic gadgets from eXistenZ; the horizontal gash across his gut, sealed with a zipper, that so arouses his lover Caprice (Léa Seydoux) obviously recalls Videodrome’s abdomen VCR; and the rebel mutants who are hunted by shadowy corporate forces are a throwback to Scanners.
The list of references goes on but perhaps the most important precedent is Crash. In Crimes of the Future’s retro-futuristic vision of society – as homogenous as the world of Crash, except drab and earthy where its predecessor was shiny and metallic – characters speak with the same narcotised, breathily suggestive affect and, in lieu of car crashes, it’s surgery that gets their juices flowing. They have the advantage that technology has advanced so far, pain has been all but eradicated and wounds are easily healed. No longer forced to follow their passion to its logical conclusion, they can keep slicing each other’s bodies open endlessly. Scientific progress has thwarted the death drive but, of course, satisfaction remains beyond reach. And so they seek further.
Saul and Caprice are celebrity performance artists who perform what is essentially a live sex show. Whenever one of Saul’s new organs has fully formed, Caprice excises it using a repurposed “autopsy table” produced by LifeFormWare, the same company that makes Saul’s bed and chair. This machine, which could have been designed by H.R. Giger, is shaped like a coffin with long arms, each ending in a scalpel, which Caprice controls with a remote that looks like a lump of blubber. The audience stand around the operating theatre in a state of palpable excitation, recording the procedure with hilariously outdated analogue devices, from 8mm to point-and-shoot cameras. (All technology that isn’t organic appears to not have progressed beyond the 1980s.)
In this talk-heavy film, many statements are made about the importance of creating art with a philosophical essence. Rather than pompous, the self-reflexivity is at once earnest and tongue-in-cheek. In a funny scene, Saul watches the performance of a popular new artist who has engineered ears to grow all over his body. When he then rants to Caprice about the show, dismissing it as hollow shock tactics, it’s impossible not to read this as a dig at the myriad filmmakers whose work has been dubbed Cronenbergian. The punchline, however, is provided by Caprice’s response: “Jealous?”
The film’s overall tone is pitched this way between solemnity and irony, which prevents the copious thematically pointed dialogues from succumbing to self-seriousness. Searching for more extreme ideas for his art – or, rather, more potent outlets for his desire – Saul gets entangled in a conspiracy that involves an underground community whose members illegally modify their bodies to digest plastic, and various more or less covert government and corporate entities that seek to quash this “evolutionary insurrection”. Now that the organic has been mastered, the capacity of metabolising synthetics is the new frontier everyone is desperate to conquer first, be it for profit, authority or pleasure. The new flesh will be made of plastic. And if the ecstatic closing shot is anything to go by, this may not necessarily be a bad thing.
Sat September 17, 2022, 7:30 PM, Muenzinger Auditorium
Canada, France, Greece, United Kingdom; 2022; in English, French; 107 min, DCP
Director: David Cronenberg, Writer: David Cronenberg, Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux, Scott Speedman, Kristen Stewart, Welket Bungué