Art is painful and unpredictable in Crimes of the Future, David Cronenberg’s latest film. As a work of art itself, though, Crimes of the Future has a remarkable amount of polish. The movie brings Cronenberg back to science fiction for the first time in two decades, and it melds his signature squishy body horror with a luxuriant retro-futuristic aesthetic and a murky but carefully traced story about artists at the end of the world — or the birth of a new one. It’s a film whose tagline is “surgery is the new sex,” but the results are less shocking and more pleasurable than they might sound.
Crimes of the Future is (presumably) set in the future, but there’s little indication as to when or where. It takes place in a grimy metropolis where technology ranges from camcorders and CRTs to fleshy jellyfish-like anesthetic beds. Rusting boats lie half-submerged on a beach on the edge of town, where rotting plastic pollutes the sand. Most of the population has become inured to pain and disease, and they’ve begun to grow mysterious new body parts. The only remaining art form in this future is extreme surgery, and its virtuoso performers are a duo named Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and Caprice (Léa Seydoux), who live in an abandoned industrial facility equipped to treat Tenser’s strange physical quirks.
Tenser is revered among future-bohemians for his unprecedented ability to grow novel internal organs. Caprice extracts these in live performances with an eerie surgery machine composed of bones, caressing a controller that looks like a Milton Bradley Simon game was eaten by a deep-sea isopod. Tenser’s new parts are then cataloged by a ramshackle organization called the National Organ Registry, which is run by the avuncular Wippet (Don McKellar) and the high-strung Timlin (Kristen Stewart). The rare skeptic of organ art is Detective Cope (Welket Bungué), a “New Vice Unit of Justice” agent on the trail of an extremist group. (He admits the bureau name was chosen to sound cool.)
There’s a lot of classic Cronenberg visual language here, including the jellyfish bed and an obsession with grotesque-yet-sensual disfigurement. Meanwhile, the shadowy sets and placeless glamour evoke the broader tradition of German Expressionist-influenced sci-fi noir, in the vein of Brazil or City of Lost Children. The film’s dialogue has a dryly comic snappiness that feels like a twisted pastiche of a ‘40s Humphrey Bogart script.
Like many a good film noir, everyone’s loyalties are tangled and sometimes inscrutable. Bureaucratic agencies seem to operate at cross-purposes with no real government to guide them. A powerful corporation hovers around the edges of the world, but its avatars are a pair of mechanics (Nadia Litz and Tanaya Beatty) who spontaneously undress in front of clients. The world-weary Tenser is playing several sides of a brewing conflict and looks exhausted by the effort. While the film isn’t exactly slow-moving, the plot is twisty enough that it’s not always evident where its long conversations and meditative surgical scenes are going — but they’re enlivened with strikingly bizarre future-tech and absurdist plot points like an “Inner Beauty Pageant.”
Cronenberg predicted that Crimes of the Future would make viewers walk out of screenings, and apparently some Cannes attendees did just that when it premiered. It’s got all the trappings of splatterpunk body horror: skeletal machines split skin like ripe fruit; facial features grow where they shouldn’t; and characters are aroused by bloody, yonic wounds.
But the film is so glossy and stylized that this sounds more outré than it is. Unlike Cronenberg’s best-known violence-as-sex movies Crash and Videodrome, there’s no sense of some unnerving new techno-culture encroaching on our own world. Bodies are frequently mutilated but also putty-like and invulnerable. The violence enacted on them rarely seems to stick. There’s little of the raw discomfort of a film like Julia Ducournau’s genuinely difficult-to-watch Titane, because the characters themselves seem so unfazed. Surgery might be the new sex, but in the chaste landscape of contemporary film, the results are less shocking than old sex would be.
Instead, the horror hits hardest in parts that aren’t overtly bloody — including any time a character eats something, which ends up producing scenes far more quietly disturbing than the film’s surgical feats. Crimes of the Future’s central mystery concerns the nature of the “accelerated evolution syndrome” that’s struck people like Tenser. At first, it seems purely like the human body going haywire, and Tenser considers the changes a curse; his art is an attempt to maintain control over his own flesh as it tries to transform into something new. But to others, like the criminal group that New Vice is pursuing, it’s a necessary physiological adaptation for an ugly future.
As Tenser skulks around the city in a flowing black costume, the group’s revolutionary movement is trying to push humanity toward a form that can survive by literally consuming the plastic pollution it’s pumped into the environment. Its leader (Scott Speedman) wants Caprice to dissect his son, a performance he claims will reveal an enigmatic and important truth. Crimes of the Future’s characters are caught between a decadent, decaying old world and a miserably efficient new one, and it’s not clear what even the most brilliant art can do to change that.
There’s a compelling intersection between Crimes of the Future’s baroque metaphors about art and its extremely literal environmental themes. Tenser and Caprice are stuck in the sci-fi version of an eternal debate over aesthetics and meaning, ambivalent of fans who love their work for precisely the wrong reasons and participating in an aesthetically interesting project for an unsettling political cause. The futuristic surgical art scene is a sympathetic caricature of its present-day fine art counterpart, full of people who are undeniably pretentious but still capable of delivering an entertaining speech or satisfyingly grotesque set piece.
Like fans of Tenser’s surgical art, it’s easy to read meaning into Crimes of the Future. While the film was written around 1999, it taps into very contemporary anxieties about climate change, pollution, and intergenerational conflict. But it’s more satisfying to fall into a weird, gorgeous exploration of a surreal subculture — just be careful of the microplastics.
Crimes of the Future will be released in theaters June 3rd.