Crimes of the Future: a darkly funny world of organ-ised crime

The first film in nearly 25 years to be written and directed by David Cronenberg without being based on another writer’s work, this sly sci-fi autofiction bears all the Canadian maestro’s usual hallmarks.

15 September 2022

By Kim Newman

Viggo Mortensen as Saul Tenser in Crimes of the Future (2022)
Sight and Sound

“Beauty is only skin-deep,” says the heroine of Ib Melchior’s drive-in quickie The Time Travelers (1964). “What do you want,” snaps the hero, “a lovely liver?” In David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future, a far cry from Melchior’s movie, a beauty contest for internal organs is one feature of the world envisioned by the cinema’s foremost prophet of the new flesh.

Cronenberg’s 63-minute 1970 film Crimes of the Future was one of a run of experimental works made before Shivers (1975), the film that first worked the director’s personal concerns (bodily mutation and societal collapse) into commercial exploitation cinema. Though the Canadian auteur began as a filmmaker who generated his own material, he has primarily worked from other authors’ work since his Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone (1983), going out of his way to select ‘unfilmable’ properties, such as William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and J.G. Ballard’s Crash, making films that fuse his own DNA with that of those literary provocateurs. The new Crimes is the first film to be both directed and written by Cronenberg without being based on another writer’s work since eXistenZ (1999), which was in turn the first such film since Videodrome (1983).

The world of Crimes of the Future is a world in which bodies can spontaneously generate mutant organs. The internal organs that sprout in the body of performance artist Saul Tenser (four-time Cronenberg star Viggo Mortensen) are removed by his artist partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux) as part of their performances. There are mischievous parallels with Cronenberg and his milieu here: the various organisations and individuals that take an interest in Saul as fans, patrons, sponsors or decriers recall Cronenberg’s time as a grindhouse and arthouse auteur, with the associated models of funding and distribution. One critic (Efi Kantza) complains that the numerous ears sprouting from the head and body of a dancer (Tassos Karahalios) are functionless, meaningless frills on a conventional performance.

One marker of Cronenberg’s original scripts is distinctive character names; here, we have Brecken Dotrice, Dr Nasatir and Dani Router, worthy successors to the likes of Adrian Tripod (from the 1970 Crimes of the Future), Roxanne Keloid (Rabid, 1977) and Bianca O’Blivion (Videodrome). Also distinctive is the bio-mechanical technology – a breakfast chair that aids digestion and a suspended bed that, through torturous, tentacular penetrations of the flesh, is somehow designed to assist the user’s sleep. Remote-controlled scalpels effect body modifications to redefine beauty, pleasure and love, yielding the film’s satirical slogan: “Surgery is the new sex”. We’re back in Cronenberg country, though the rough-hewn future is now Greece rather than Canada – a setting imposed by co-production financing, but used to great effect.

The government in the film sees the rate of growth of internal organs – “accelerated evolution” – as a threat, and grubbily attempts to clamp down on it. Symbiotic oppression and rebellion have figured in Cronenberg movies since Stereo (1969), and the various factions in Crimes might have evolved out of ConSec (from 1981’s Scanners) or the Realist Underground (from eXistenZ). But it isn’t just the organisations that are shady. In Crimes, Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman), the leader of a pro-mutation sect, intends the public dissection of his dead plastic-eating son as a triumphant propaganda coup for accelerated evolutionists. Wippet (Don McKellar) and Timlin (a delightfully twitchy, off-kilter Kristen Stewart) are quasi-state bureaucrats required to internally tattoo and classify new organs, but are also would-be collaborators in the underground art world. Router (Nadia Litz) and Berst (Tanaya Beatty) are tech support for the large sarcophagus-like apparatus used in some of the performance art pieces, but are also playful, drill-wielding corporate assassins. And Tenser himself – echoing Mortensen’s role in Cronenberg’s crime movie Eastern Promises (2007) – is working undercover for the cops, having long since surrendered to the pain of his profession.

Cronenberg has also weathered career ups and downs, not least the contrived controversy surrounding Crash (1996), but Tenser, like Max Renn (James Woods) in Videodrome, is as much self-criticism as self-portrait. The film lays it on thick with a wry humour that is perhaps the major line of continuity between the Crimes of 1970 and the Crimes of 2022.  Cronenberg’s inventiveness is undimmed, though he long ago shed the suspense-heavy plotting that powered much of his early work in favour of a more glacial, contemplative approach. The thriller elements are merely vestigial organs; the functioning body is deadpan black comedy and modest speculation as to the nature of creativity in a post-human future.

► Crimes of the Future is in UK cinemas now.

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