Crimes of the Future is not only David Cronenberg’s return to science fiction after the 23 years since eXistenZ. It’s also the good science fiction – a vision of the future that deals with an alternative value system rather than excessive detailing of technological curiosities. You could say the science fiction of Ursula K. LeGuin rather than Arthur C. Clarke. At first glance, Crimes of the Future might seem dystopian, but that’s mostly the colour tones speaking. Beneath a surface of dark and dirty hides an often poignant collection of ideas on our relation to our bodies in the face of biotechnological change. More importantly, on the role of pleasure in society.
Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and Caprice (Léa Seydoux) live out their lives as performance artists. Their choice of medium is the continuous stream of strange and random body organs growing inside Saul due to “Accelerated Evolution Syndrome”. Turning the rather tumourous nature of Saul’s condition on its head, the duo derives high aesthetics from its fruits. An audience of eager art lovers attends the auditorium where Saul and Caprice perform the delicate movements of organ harvest – performers and admirers gasping out loud, the gasps of gratification. This is a future where visceral pleasure has high status, and art is seen as genuinely essential.
Such a future is decidedly different from what most sci‑fi films depict. More common are dystopian illustrations of societies lost to the mechanisms of unfettered capitalism, technocratic authoritarianism and ecological collapse. Societies no longer at the service of humanity. In fact, it’s surprisingly hard to find movies about a future that is not, for the most part, worse than the current era. (I have often argued Her is a rare exception.)
Crimes of the Future does not tell us too much about its time, but it does not imagine a world of apathy and indifference. It does not imagine a world where culture is entirely dominated by the entertainment of bloody violence. It is not without sinister elements and intentions, but those are not necessarily indicative of civilisation as a whole.
Furthermore, in this vision, the treasuring of artistic expression runs deeper than the in‑group of the conceptual performance art world. Much like the alternative history world in the Thursday Next novels by Jasper Fforde places literature on a far higher pedestal than our own timeline, Crimes of the Future shows performance art as desirable among many of its denizens. Two of those are the government clerks Timlin – expertly played by Kristen Stewart – and Wippet, portrayed by Don McKellar, whose excellent end‑of‑the‑world film Last Night conversely features none other than David Cronenberg. These employees of the so‑called National Organ Registry carry out their bureaucratic function – keeping track of emerging organ phenomena – with great conscientiousness. But their minds are also elsewhere, in a place of excitement, of surgical, sexual thrill. Confronted with the practices of Saul and Caprice, they cannot help but feel that urge to commit art themselves. Timlin, in particular, lurks in the theatre, eyeing the sarcophagal apparatus making its penetrative incisions, adding to Saul’s plethora of exposed and exploited orifices. Deriving pleasure from pain, Saul and Timlin shiver alike, one from sensitive exhibitionism, the other as a voyeur. Stewart’s cautious pencil‑pusher dreams not of wealth or fame but of the spotlight on a stage with a sharp blade.
Crimes of the Future has all the gory exposition you would want to firmly classify it as body horror – the subgenre Cronenberg so diligently helped define through masterpieces like Videodrome. But I’m not so convinced that label is the most helpful one here. More than horror, it’s a complex and artful film that deals with thrill and satisfaction in the sexual sense. “Surgery is the new sex”, it proclaims. (Something the growing “bimbofication” movement in our times echoes.) These themes are not unfamiliar to fans of Cronenberg, and much like some of his other work, Crimes of the Future feels like being carved into. The faint‑hearted will undoubtedly have to avert their eyes every now and then. But looking beyond the carnage, there is carnality. Call it body romance. A fantastic tale that says: pleasure is a serious business.
Crimes of the Future premiered at Cannes on May 23, 2022.