David Cronenberg’s new film, “Crimes of the Future,” is launched by a crime of the past, one that emerges from classical Greek mythology: the murder of a young boy by his mother. The movie’s setting and action are as stylized and abstracted as those of classical tragedy, and, for that matter, “Crimes of the Future” was filmed in Greece. But the murder, far from unleashing the movie’s tragic power, is, rather, only a symbol or marker of it—a subordinate plot point of little emotional import. “Crimes of the Future” is, for better and worse, a conceptual film; it’s less an experience than it is an idea, less a drama of characters’ experiences than an allegory for Cronenberg’s despairingly diagnostic view of present-day crimes, ones that society commits against society.
“Crimes of the Future” is a thinly conceived dystopian fantasy that offers its characters little psychology and little context, little view of the social order around them or the history that led them there; it displays ideas in isolation from their whys and wherefores. In this regard, it’s a classic “late film”—it’s the first feature that Cronenberg, who’s seventy-nine, has made since 2014, and what he has to say here he lays on the line with few of the blandishments of popular movies, and little of the aesthetic care of art-house ones. It’s a movie to have seen rather than to see. The ideas that Cronenberg puts forth are powerful and poignant; his subject is the effort to make art amid a despoiled cultural environment and debased cultural consumption. It’s a drama of eight years of silence, of a vision of the end of the line, the end of the world as he knew it.
In the movie’s first dramatic scene, the boy’s mother, Djuna (Lihi Kornowski), finds the boy, Brecken (Sozos Sotiris), sitting on the floor of their bathroom, munching on a plastic garbage basket—which is telling, as “Crimes of the Future” is very much about the crimes of consumption and the system of production that led to them. The movie’s protagonists are a couple of artists, Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and Caprice (Léa Seydoux), who live and work together. Saul, who has a sort of “accelerated evolution syndrome,” manages to generate inside himself—supposedly even wills into being—new internal organs of unspecified function or no function at all. In private, Caprice examines them invasively, by inserting an endoscopic-lens tube through his skin into his abdomen. Then, in public, their performances involve Saul lying passively on an “autopsy bed,” which Caprice manipulates, via remote control, to open him up and extract these new organs, to the hushed and breathless delight of their audience. (Though directing a film of body horror, Cronenberg tones down the gross-out, in quality and quantity, as if rendering it a mere symbol of itself.)
Notably, with all the piercings and carvings and penetrations of the body, there’s no question of infection or, for that matter, of blood flow. Caprice sterilizes nothing, cleans nothing, suctions nothing, and closes up Saul’s wounds with a mere heat seal. But, most important, these procedures are painless, and the human species’ newly built-in insensibility is a crucial detail: pain has nearly disappeared. This is a fact of grave import because pain, one character says, is a “warning system.” The warnings are gone, and humanity has crossed the boundary into a danger zone and can’t, it seems, cross back, though not for lack of trying. There’s a National Organ Registry, run by a pair of investigators named Wippet (Don McKellar), a longtimer, and his younger associate, Timlin (Kristen Stewart), who enforce the government’s repression of evolution manipulators—yet secretly admire them. Saul dutifully reports his new creations in detail, even donates them to the registry, but there’s something about his art that nonetheless renders him and Caprice suspicious; they get summoned to the registry for an interrogation, and a detective named Cope (Welket Bungué), with whom Saul has a shadowy connection, in turn questions the registrars about him.
For Cronenberg, the connection between art and bodies, between creative endeavors and the enduring physical transformation of human life, is a long-standing inspiration, as in “Videodrome,” from 1983. In “Crimes of the Future,” he takes that idea even more literally. Saul’s art is literally visceral; it takes place amid a process of rapid evolutionary transformation that it both responds to and accelerates. It isn’t only the body that has changed. Society at large has overcome the duality of the analog and the digital, by means of the organic. Caprice examines Saul as he lies in a pod that resembles a large soft-tissue organ; the autopsy bed’s remote control is formed like a small handheld brain. Even the throne-like chair, in which the transfigured Saul eats, is made of bones that move. How Saul got his self-propagating powers is never made clear, but that mystery, for all its hand-waving vagueness, hints at the underlying premise—the very mystery of artistic ability and power. Saul’s ability is a given; what he does with it, and the obstacles that he faces in realizing it, are the drama.
The relationship between Saul and Caprice is, in many ways, like that of director and actress. His active work is essentially internal, and his public side is essentially passive and requires the active, public, theatrical work of a woman, an actress, to bring it to the world. She’s at least as much of an artist as he is; she refers to the autopsy bed as her “paintbrush,” and Cope wonders whether Saul is an artist at all but only a “glorified organ donor.” Saul is introduced to Dr. Nasatir (Yorgos Pirpassopoulos), a plastic surgeon who specializes in “inner beauty.” (It’s a quote from Cronenberg’s 1988 medical-horror film, “Dead Ringers.”) Nasatir wants to enter Saul into an “inner-beauty pageant” in the category of “best original organ with no known function.” Yet, at the registry, Saul is encouraged to “aim higher,” to go for “best in show.” Timlin, who has body-artistic aspirations of her own, wonders whether “surgery is the new sex.” She wants to be a part of Saul’s act, and also to be his lover. Saul says that he’s “not very good at the old sex.”
The “new sex,” indeed, takes place in and around the autopsy bed and involves scalpels and synthetic orifices (including the one, involving a zipper built into Saul’s abdomen, that Caprice erotically opens). Yet the “old sex” still, apparently, is what makes babies—and it’s the creation of a new generation that’s the linchpin of the action. (Spoilers are inevitable.) Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman), the father of the plastic-eating Brecken, is himself a plastic eater; Lang is among the many, in the new world at hand, who have made themselves that way. He’s no disinterested artist—he has a huge stake in the transformation and the transformed as the manufacturer of “synth,” a plasticized, candy-bar-like food. What’s more, this plastic-eating trait splices into the genetic structure and is passed along to the next generation—i.e., Brecken—thus transforming the human species.
This Lamarckian vision of a new human species is buttressed by an ideological twist of presumptive virtue, one with shades of Stalin’s geneticist, Trofim Lysenko: the power of plastic eaters to clean up the environmental mess left by preceding generations. The analogy to synthetic entertainment and the enduring transformations that it wreaks is clear; Brecken’s mother kills the child whose father produced the superhero movies and the C.G.I. sludge that the new, transformed generation of children can’t stop consuming, and consume exclusively. “The world is killing our children from the inside out” is a line dropped in the film after Brecken’s death. By killing her child, Djuna both takes a Medea-like revenge on her ex-husband and tries to save the world from the doom that he fosters. Yet, like the dubious industrial heroes of the present day, Lang may well have the last laugh, as the leader of a movement to forge a brighter technological future.
The world of “Crimes of the Future” is lugubrious. Its buildings are dilapidated, like they’ve survived some recent catastrophe. The town is sunk deep in shadows and gloom, and even the sunlight is muted. Saul passes through its streets in a black cowl and a mask, looking like a scythe-less Grim Reaper. There’s an element of low-tech surveillance and authoritarian repression, a warning about “subversive groups” and ambient murmurs of martyrs and causes. Moreover, what’s transgressive about Saul and Caprice’s art is its dangerous overlap with the industrial evolutionary manipulations of Lang and the plastic eaters. Saul begins to wonder whether there’s any place at all for his work in a world that’s veering toward the production and consumption of synthetics rather than organics. The grimness of the world around him—of being inescapably affected by the encroaching realm of artifice, of being too much a part of the world he lives in—leaves Saul with the tragic sense that he and his art have outlived their times. Cronenberg’s implicit self-portraiture is the film’s most personal, most visceral element. He makes his long-awaited return to the movies through the exit door.