Two decades after his last body horror, David Cronenberg resurrects his 1998 script, promising audiences a sexy, squirmish delight with his latest sci-fi horror.
In March a revolutionary discovery was made, finding that microplastics had been identified in the human bloodstream. This presented to the public the ugly truth that human evolution inescapably follows the tide of our negligent mistakes. Screening at Cannes just a few months later, Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future — which the director coined “a meditation on humans and technology” — opens with a young boy eating items made from the plastic before his mother suffocates him to death, making his latest feature more timely than ever.
Set in Athens, a city rich with culture and streets paved with the stories of millions of people throughout history, the film invites us into the future of the ancient city. We are introduced to celebrity performance artist Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), who is initially seen in his software powered ‘OrchidBed’ — A womb-like vessel with tentacle wires attached to the ceiling looking like something out an Alien or The Matrix films. The bed tends to humans’ every essential need, and his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux) tends to his sexual desires, as well as her own, by surgically controlling Saul’s mutating organs during his body art shows.
Like many others in this underground scene of cutting edge performance art, Saul has “evolved beyond his natural state.” This altering of his biological makeup where he can grow new organs is known as “Accelerated Evolution Syndrome,” a term coined by the National Organ Registry’s two employees Timlin (Kristen Stewart) and Wippit (Don McKeller). The pair become intensely fascinated by Saul and Caprice’s intimate art shows through their research tracking organ growths. In fact, Timlin becomes so enticed by Saul, she plucks up the courage to speak to him just after the show. In a moment of desperation to impress and seduce, she exclaims “Surgery is the new sex”, whilst an understandably jealous Caprice sits beside Saul seething in silence. In fact, the dynamic between the poised, art-romanticist Caprice and a high-strung Timlin is elevated by Stewart’s signature twitchy mannerisms, and is intoxicating throughout the film.
Cronenberg’s signature splatterpunk iconography coarses through the veins of this film, with close ups of Caprice slicing into Saul’s skin with the same tenderness you’d apply to a fillet steak and techno fuelled dancing performed by “Ear Man.” Eerily resembling Coraline’s ‘Other Mother’, this character has his eyes and mouth sewn shut and covered from head to toe (or ear to ear) in spare ears. Cronenberg is anything but stingy with freakish surrealism and gore. However, scenes lack the same visceral horror as his previous body horror, like The Fly (1986), for example, or even Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or winning Titane, influenced by Cronenberg’s Crash (1996). There’s a generous amount of close-ups with the DoP Douglas Koch’s camerawork lingering on blood oozing alongside the splicing blade, capturing the intensity and warmth of fresh human blood throughout the film. And the delicate use of CGI effects eliminates any possibility of the film feeling unnatural or animated at any point.
So what makes the “audiences will faint and have panic attacks” selling point of the film seem like a grave exaggeration (which the director himself said he wasn’t convinced would be the general reaction)? The characters in this future setting don’t associate pain as bad. In fact, the prodding, cutting deconstruction of their bodies can be intimate and sexual, if not just the norm. So, after the first ten minutes the film, when you realise that the characters aren’t hurting, there’s (almost) nothing to squirm over. The visceral element is, in fact, how quickly the audience come to adapt to the new norm presented on screen. There’s no longer a knee jerk reaction of covering your eyes or tensing your body. Comparing Cronenberg’s latest to his wider body of work, Crimes of the Future is underwhelming in terms of body horror particularly when his sci-fi genre film Videodrome (1983) offers an equal amount of body-shuddering horror as it does an exploration of technology’s evolution.
Nonetheless, Cronenberg’s metacommentary of art and technology as an extension of one’s body and a potential tool to solve the climate crisis is as personal and macabre as Caprice and Saul’s shows. Cronenberg uses the camera as a scalpel to dissect this amalgamation of humankind with its synthetic surroundings, making this body horror set in the not-so-distant future an unnerving imitation of life’s present-day.
Words by Alexandria Slater
This film screened as part of the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, find the rest of our coverage here.
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