When considering the 22 full-length features of Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg, there is an ironic subtext to the phrase “body of work.” For Cronenberg, the body is the work. In film after film, he breaches deeply-felt taboos about violating the body, never turning his camera away from the shocking and the shattering. In the process, he scrambles our sensibilities and with them our complacent notions of reality and normality.
It is a commonplace that because of the world’s rightward lurch, what was considered moderate is now liberal. Cronenberg, along with a handful of other filmmakers, has caused a similar categorical shift: What was considered weird in the world BC (Before Cronenberg) is now ho-hum. Cronenberg, 79, has always insouciantly danced the line separating shock and schlock, but never so nimbly as in his latest, Crimes of the Future, which comes along eight years after Maps of the Stars. Yet because we’re so much deeper into the AC (After Cronenberg) world, Crimes of the Future must contend and compete with a violent and marvelous cinematic universe that Cronenberg was instrumental in creating.
Because Crimes of the Future must fit within the envelope of this science-fiction/horror (Sci-Fright?) paradigm that he helped pioneer, there is an irony that would be at home in any of his films: To avoid seeming trite, to equal the shock quotient of his own previous … body … of work, to seem sufficiently weird—i.e. to account for the Cronenberg effect—Crimes of the Future must out-Cronenberg Cronenberg. He has to up his own ante.
And he does. In Crimes of the Future, violating the body is not a plot point. It is the plot point. Opening his characters is how Cronenberg opens his characters. The squeamish need not apply.
As always in Cronenberg, horror is a dish best served cold. Crimes of the Future, which Cronenberg initially wrote in the 1990s, is set in a dark, indeterminate future in which 1) people have lost the ability to feel pain; and 2) their bodies have begun to produce strange organs. Many inhabitants of the film’s world believe these changes herald a new stage of human evolution that humanity should embrace. Their autocratic government views these people as subversives and tracks them, infiltrating their movement; undercover government agents attend gatherings where amateurs—no doubt much to the chagrin of the AMA— perform disfiguring, sexually-charged, cosmetic surgeries that Cronenberg’s camera caresses with gleeful and excruciating detail.
Also—I almost forgot—people have, as part of their regular diets, begun to ingest and digest plastic. (There’s a minor sub-plot involving a subversive group that is manufacturing plastic-infused nutrition bars, a trend that I hope does not catch on.)
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The plot follows Saul Tensor (Viggo Mortensen), a wearer of dark, hooded robes, and Caprice (Léa Seydoux), a former trauma surgeon who has left her day job—and presumably the AMA—to partner with Saul as performance artists. Their art consists of public showings—operating theaters—of Caprice’s surgeries on Saul during which she removes the rogue organs that Saul’s body regularly produces.
And then things get weird.
Or maybe not that weird: Because during the film, one has a feeling that it was sold via a compelling, high-concept pitch—Performance Artists Perform Surgery As Performance Art Performances—but, as often the case with high-concept productions, bsent an actual, compelling story. The film consists of a series of gory surgeries—organ removal, bizarre, cosmetic mutilations—and their aftermaths, interspersed with scenes of murder, conspiracy, and betrayal, all in service of a spindly, skeletal story whose bones fit together in unnatural ways. The thin narrative provides a flimsy frame for Cronenberg to fill not only with the incipient horror of casual, elective surgery and disfigurement, but also with images of a dystopian future about which he thinks we should be concerned. (He of course is correct about that.) He is a serious, articulate filmmaker, and there are serious ideas here, but to make his films, Cronenberg still must first get them green-lit.
While it is true that Cronenberg’s most Cronenbergian contribution to this genre is serving horror cold, it is also frequently served wet, with viscera dripping blood and other bodily fluids. Extreme violence hurtles out of nowhere without regard for intrinsic plot logic (thus violence that is senseless even in fictional terms): One of the film’s subplots involves a pair of assassinettes who appear randomly, who have no … organic … connection to the story, who like to get naked, and who relish using portable power tools in ways not contemplated by Black and Decker.
A major sub-plot involves two bureaucrats, Wippet (Don McKellar) and Timlin (Kristen Stewart), who work for a government agency that can’t admit its own existence because if it did, the government would have to admit the evolution that’s taking place, the knowledge of which it is attempting to suppress. Both actors, but especially a distractingly-twitchy Stewart, seem to have wandered into Crimes of the Future from a different movie, perhaps a nearby mumblecore—or, considering this is Cronenberg, mumblegore—production. Like other characters in Crimes of the Future, both Timlin and Wippet present exteriors that are at odds with their interiors. Throughout the film, Cronenberg dissects his characters’ conflicting hidden agendas with the same detailed, ironic detachment with which the lovingly-detailed surgeries expose their entrails.
Certainly it is true to life for characters have personal agendas that conflict with their public positions, but if viewers are pulled out of the story because those characters seem more interesting than the main characters, it is false to fiction.
Given the film’s curdled humor, some viewers, determined to be in on the joke, will praise Crimes of the Future as a work of mad, dark-comic genius. Others will see exploitation dressed in robes of academic pretense. After sitting through this 107-minute gore-fest, even leavened with moments of darkly-funny absurdity and healthy dollops of earnest concern about the future, I left the theater feeling preyed upon and patronized, interested neither in plastic surgery nor plastic, and feeling the juice had not been worth the squeeze.