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The Old Cronenberg: The Nostalgia Of Crimes Of The Future
Steve Erickson , June 3rd, 2022 10:12

David Cronenberg has become self-conscious about his work to the point where the only option is to perpetually look back, finds Steve Erickson

How does an artist age gracefully when his reputation is based on transgression? What happens when gory images of body horror become a form of fan service more than a provocation? These questions surround David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future. It arrives after an eight-year break for the director, following the worldwide commercial failure of Maps to the Stars. During that period, he talked with Netflix about making a TV series, but the streamer proved too conservative. He acted in Star Trek: Beyond and even released two NFTs. Many fans thought he’d never be able to make another film. Crimes of the Future has nothing directly to do with the experimental 1970 film it’s named after, but it implies a look back to the start of Cronenberg’s work, before he realised that his more outre ideas are best expressed through genre forms.

Crimes of the Future begins with a mother murdering her young son. Performance artist Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) rests in a bed which conforms to his body like a fleshy cocoon. As he approaches old age, his body grows new organs. In the world of Crimes of the Future, surgery has become performance art, these tumours valued artworks. With his collaborator and maybe lover Caprice (Léa Seydoux), Saul turns his medical procedures into public spectacle as Caprice tattoos his organs before removing them. The National Organ Registry, represented by Timlin (Kristen Stewart) and Whippet (Don McKellar), oversee the surgeries for the government. The child murder hovers over the entire film, as the boy’s father (Scott Speedman) insists that an autopsy be performed. He chews on synthetic candy bars, toxic to most humans, for nourishment.

Before Crimes of the Future premiered at Cannes last month, Cronenberg hyped it up by claiming that people would walk out during the first five minutes and stumble out of the theatre with panic attacks. It’s true that it breaks a taboo on violence against children. Another scene shows a dancer with his eyes already sewn shut and his body covered with surplus ears, sewing his mouth closed with needle and thread. (The film’s performances lift from the BDSM-infused work of artists like Stelarc, who added a third ear to his body with plastic surgery, Ron Athey, and the late Bob Flanagan.) But Crimes of the Future really isn’t that disturbing, especially since its audience is likely to include many Cronenberg scholars.

Crimes of the Future is most reminiscent of the filmmaker’s ‘90s films, especially eXistenZ and Crash. It continues a running motif in his work: gore is inseparable from libido. Despite the seeming coldness of Crash, its camera movements exude a buried sensuality. The camera passes over cars and people alike with a caress. In one notorious scene, Patricia Arquette’s disabled character uses a wound in her leg as a new sex organ. Crimes of the Future revisits that concept. Cronenberg’s own aging lurks behind the film. He wrote and acted in a one-minute short film, The Death of David Cronenberg, released as a NFT. In it, he plays a man who enters a mysterious bedroom and encounters his own corpse. Then, he recently released Inner Beauty, an NFT of a photo of his kidney stones, claiming, ““I see in these kidney stones a luminous narrative generated by a group of my inner organs, a narrative as intimate as a person could imagine.” This project evokes the art gallery show of medical tools in 1988’s Dead Ringers.

The slogan “surgery is the new sex” in Crimes of the Future looks back to Videodrome’s tagline “long live the new flesh.” But Crimes of the Future takes place in a dystopian future where humanity literally needs to grow new flesh in order to digest and live off plastic. The surgery scenes show men getting pleasure from being penetrated, usually by women. This theme recurs from earlier Cronenberg films – think of James Woods growing a vaginal slit which becomes a bodily VHS player in Videodrome, or plugging organic video game consoles directly into the body in eXistenZ. Cronenberg’s imagery has regularly flirted with queer and trans subjectivity – the sexual orientation of Crash’s characters is impossible to pin down – and Crimes of the Future’s surgery suggests men enjoying bottoming in anal sex (or even porn, since they’re exposing their bodies to a public audience), although the film also uses female nudity in a disappointingly conventional style geared towards male pleasure.

In present-day film culture, turning oneself into a brand is the only way to sustain a career making personal films. Cronenberg made a noticeable move away from body horror following eXistenZ. His 21st-century work is quite varied, with mainstream-adjacent thrillers (Eastern Promises, A History of Violence), a Merchant-Ivory-style arthouse film (A Dangerous Method) and eccentric literary adaptations (Spider, Cosmopolis). His preoccupations persisted in these movies, but they took on different forms. For a director accused of misogyny and disgust with sex and the body early in his career, A Dangerous Method celebrates BDSM as a form of healing for a deeply troubled woman. Eastern Promises turned the gangster film into a reflection on the male body’s fragility, with a lengthy fight scene where Mortensen is completely nude.

Crimes of the Future’s most seductive quality is its world-building. Shot in Athens, Cronenberg created a much different setting than the anonymous, grimly featureless North American city he typically films Toronto as. The weight of history is present in the production design of Crimes of the Future. Whether shot in actual old Greek buildings or constructed sets, they resemble decaying abstract expressionist paintings. Mould and chipping paint tear away at their edges. Even medical settings are far too dingy to be realistic.

In Crash, Cronenberg directed his actors to give narcotized, Bressonian performances, as though they were lost in a haze of their own desires. The performances of eXistenZ are full of odd pauses and glitches, something that only makes sense when we learn that we’re watching characters in a video game. That avoidance of realistic tone continues in Crimes of the Future. The dialogue and acting reflect an absurdism that refrains from pushing itself further into outright comedy.

Back in 1999, a friend likened eXistenZ to North by Northwest, viewing both films as lighter returns to territory covered by their directors in darker, more sombre films. At this point, Crimes of the Future looks back at Cronenberg in the ‘90s already casting an eye on The Brood, Videodrome, The Fly and Dead Ringers. It echoes the late work of Howard Hawks, who remade the same plot three times in Rio Bravo, El Dorado and Rio Lobo, with diminishing returns for the last two. Back in the ‘60s, auteurist critics championed the late films of directors like Hawks, Fritz Lang and Jean Renoir, and that tradition persists for the reception of recent Clint Eastwood films, which meditate on genre and his own mortality. Crimes of the Future is Cronenberg’s equivalent, made as directors like Julia Ducournau and even his own son Brandon encroach on his themes and images. But where eXistenZ was funny and playful, Crimes of the Future is subdued, even mournful. It’s the work of an artist who sees death approaching in the distance. For a vision of the future, it’s trapped by the legacy of its own director.