From Cannes: “Future Crimes” falls flat with boring visuals and shallow themes | arts
In his five decades as a filmmaker, David P. Cronenberg has explored the allure and meaning of body modification in often subversive and exciting ways. In “Dead Ringers” (1988), two sinister twins perform gynecological surgeries like twisted rituals. “eXistenZ” (1999) shows everyday people who get their kick from biosynthetic VR games and log in via cable connections in their abdomens. In the more subtle Eastern Promises (2007), a Russian hitman traces his violent path through gangland with intricate tattoos. With these films and his others, Cronenberg’s storytelling is imbued with a strong reverence for the body and the importance (or burden) it represents in the lives of his characters. On the cinema screen, where audiences can only experience the visual echoes of pain, Cronenberg orchestrates grotesque injuries and shocking transformations in the service of art, conveying deeply human messages.
Cronenberg has this in common with the protagonist of his latest film, the 2022 Cannes Film Festival premiere “Crimes of the Future”, who literally does it: the artist Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) performs operations on himself in front of an audience, with their help his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux). Saul experiences his own operations with the distant curiosity of a movie audience, without discomfort; In the futuristic dystopia in which the film is set, people no longer feel pain. It’s just one of the implications of Accelerated Evolutionary Syndrome, a common condition that causes the human body to change from the inside out, triggering spontaneous organ growth, changing diets, and in some cases (as viewers will soon see) trying , directing evolution towards new Semi-synthetic shapes.
As the film progresses, Saul encounters a number of shadowy figures trying to capitalize on (or contain) this new stage of evolution, including secretive government bureaucrats Wippet (Don McKellar) and Timlin (Kristen Stewart), and the bioplastics obsessive Cult leader Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman). When the story begins, it has all the elements it needs to build the kind of skin-crawling, mind-bending speculation drama Cronenberg pioneered.
Disappointingly, however, Crimes of the Future never builds much of anything: no meaning; not character dimensionality; and certainly not the tense, imaginative atmosphere that makes Cronenberg’s earlier horror so compelling. Saul appears as a caricature of a tortured artist doing his superficially interesting surgical feats while his body collapses. The film presents its art form without much commentary, and it feels more like an underexplored gag (man cuts himself up for viewers!) than a rich thematic center for the film. The cast of eclectic background characters is similarly one-dimensional, from Saul’s lazily drawn follower Caprice to the entertaining but over-the-top admirer Timlin. These characters could be appealing props if the film’s central plot were more clearly defined, more interesting, or more urgent. But instead, the film drags and jumps between characters, unwilling to commit to its identity as either a thriller or a meditative portrait of a dystopia. It transcends neither genre – it just has some of the strengths and all of the problems of both, lacking in character complexity and narrative verve while attempting to present a poorly drawn dystopian world.
Don’t take these criticisms as skepticism about the power of body horror or Cronenberg’s ability to brilliantly bridge genres. On the contrary, his earlier films electrify with their deft defiance of genre conventions while simultaneously achieving dramatic depth, breathtaking romance, horror film subversion and twisted thrills. But the power of his earlier experiments has set a high bar for his return to horror, and Crimes of the Future feels like a pale imitation.
Although Cronenberg is once again collaborating with longtime production designer Carol Spier on the film, the sets feel cheap and fauxly theatrical compared to the visual worlds of his earlier films, including the plasticky-looking biosynthetic capsule in which Saul sleeps. Flesh meets metal in some creepy, classic Cronenberg design elements, including the biosynthetic ports used throughout the film, the skeletal chair Saul uses to eat, and the gelatinous surgical technology he uses – but all of this feels after “eXistenZ” distractingly familiar. The film’s most interesting futuristic gadgets, namely the machines made of yellowed bone and grotesque ports for synthetic flesh, appeared in this film 25 years ago. And when Caprice licks Tenser’s stomach wound in a supposedly shocking gesture, it’s an oddly direct re-enactment of Allegra’s psychosexual make out with Ted’s bioport in the previous film.
If the vision of dystopia in Crimes were more interesting, immersive, or populated by fresher creative technologies than it is, these similarities would be a nice tribute – but in the absence of a new, equally compelling cinematic world to lose yourself in, they work simply played out. The film’s thematic superficiality makes its lackluster atmosphere even more striking.
Overall, the film raises some interesting questions about how medical technology, societal norms, and the dissolving boundary between public and private life can combine to make body modification a lucrative form of entertainment. But in the end, viewers wonder what exactly the film is trying to say about humanity or the body, aside from the idea that people are fascinated by its deconstruction and will seek a more intense transformation as our technology and environment change . These ideas were already evident in Cronenberg’s earlier work and career itself – after all, thousands of people thronged the Cannes premiere of Crimes for their first glimpse of the master of body horror’s stitched-up eyelids and dissected torso. But as it turns out, this latest surgical spectacle tells us little about our world, now or in the future. Viewers would be better off just watching eXistenZ again.