‘Crimes of the Future:’ David Cronenberg’s Alarming Return to Body Horror


Léa Seydoux and Kristen Stewart in “Crimes of the Future”(Courtesy Neon)

By Megan Fisher, Arts Writer


In 1970, while still in the Honors English and Literature Program at the University of Toronto, David Cronenberg directed a 63-minute feature called “Crimes of the Future.” It’s a science fiction yarn about a futuristic world where all the women have died due to a virus caused by make-up. Cronenberg’s most recent film, his first since 2014’s “Maps to the Stars,” and a return to sci-fi horror after 1999’s “eXistenZ,” shares the same name but not the plot. With one movie at the beginning of a career and the other made at the age of 79, “Crimes of the Future” encompasses all of Cronenberg’s filmography.

There’s something of a doctoral dissertation in the 2022 “Crimes of the Future.” It is as if Cronenberg is presenting everything he has learned through more than 50 years of making movies like “Videodrome,” “The Fly,” “Crash” and “Eastern Promises.” Over the years, Cronenberg has pioneered the “body horror” sub-genre and collected in one place themes and ideas that have been present in other movies — themes such as reflections on the body, the evolution of human biology, the melding of humanity, technology, creativity and mortality.

Cronenberg Doing What Cronenberg Does Best

“Crimes of the Future” feels as though it was beamed in from an alien planet. Any resemblance to our own world is twisted or misplaced in such a way as to create an unsettled, uncanny feeling. It is a crumbling, dystopian world in which the human ability to feel pain is almost entirely gone. This has led to an underground movement where people cut open their bodies as performance art.

The preeminent body performance artist is Saul Tenser, played with a stripped down tenderness by Cronenberg’s frequent collaborator Viggo Mortensen. Tenser is afflicted with Accelerated Evolution Syndrome in which his body produces unnecessary organs at an alarming rate. This causes his body unspeakable and constant pain. He sleeps in a contraption that looks like if H.R. Giger designed a sarcophagus and  eats in a chair that constantly twists and turns him around in order to hopefully mitigate throat pain.

Tenser’s extraneous organs are removed by his partner, both romantic and creative, Caprice (Léa Seydoux) in front of a live, paying audience in a murky basement with a set up that recalls Victorian-era surgical theaters.

At the beginning of the movie, one finds Tenser debating whether he’s losing his artistic edge. There are only so many times an organ can be removed before it begins to feel routine and Tenser wonders what it’s all for. Why is he creating these organs? Why did he dedicate his life to this pursuit? What has he been trying to say with his art?

The surgeries function as a metaphor for the way that creatives open themselves up through their art and reveal themselves to the audience. Lurking on the fringes of the body art underground is Timlin, a weaselly, spluttering bureaucrat with the National Organ Registry played by Kristen Stewart. Stewart gives an incredibly fun performance reminiscent of those given by Peter Lorre in 1940s film noirs. Timlin quickly becomes entranced by the macabre spectacle and wonders aloud whether “surgery is the new sex.” Adding to all of these complications is a murder mystery where the question isn’t “who” but “why.”

For me, much of the horror came from the visceral quality of the hunched-over physicality of Mortensen’s performance and imagining my own body in such pain. That is not to say that the body horror is lacking in other places. True to Cronenberg’s form you see graphic surgeries, self-harm, vomiting, dripping bodily acids and human bodies contorting in grisly, unnatural ways. In a statement, Cronenberg warned that those not familiar with his work would walk out after five minutes. Cronenberg is back to doing what Cronenberg does best and it is not for the faint of heart.

Makes One Consider What it Means to Have the Government Control Your Body

In its questions of bodily autonomy “Crimes of the Future” is remarkably perceptive, coming out in a period of attack on the bodies of women and trans folk. This is an intelligent concept, bursting with ideas and giving the audience space to consider what it means to have the government control what one can do with their body. 

Cronenberg has developed a critical reputation for being cold and critical, but underneath the gnarly violence “Crimes of the Future” has a melancholy, elegiac heart. It is his most emotionally potent movie since “The Fly.” 

“Crimes of the Future” is the work of an aging master. If this ends up being Cronenberg’s last movie, it would not be a bad one to go out on.


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