Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
“I’m sorry, I’m not very good at the old sex,” apologizes the performance artist of the future—a line of dialogue that would not be out of place in any David Cronenberg film, but is especially amusing here. The speaker is Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), whose ability to create (or is it “endure”?) new organs and tumors within himself has made him a kind of celebrity artist: He and his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux) create happenings where she surgically extracts the new growths from his body. A worshipful hipster audience surrounds them, their phones held high in the dark to record the event (I wonder if Cronenberg missed a trick here, because surely by the time this future rolls around, phones have become an organic extension of the human hand).
It’s hard to say where these performances occur, or anything else in Crimes of the Future, a film of murky interiors and even murkier world-building. Yet this is part of the film’s spell, and I think it does cast one. Halfway through, I was ready to relegate this movie to the middle level of Cronenberg’s career; the rhythm felt off, and various jokes weren’t landing. By the time its final shot came onscreen, I was pretty enchanted. The exposition is limited, and mostly conveyed in visits to a bureaucratic office, the National Organ Registry, staffed by Don McKellar and Kristen Stewart; they are hardly drones in their work, and indeed become a little too captivated by the organ-lifting performance pieces. (The film picks up whenever McKellar and Stewart pop in—her word-tripping anxiety seems to channel Jesse Eisenberg, and her character presses Tenser into the possibility of the old sex.)
Wherever we are in the future, two things seem to be happening with human beings: they’re growing these extra organs, and (this might constitute a spoiler, so I’ll generalize) a certain segment of the population has devised its own course of forced body evolution, which will dovetail with the problem of mankind’s ability to generate waste. There’s also a policeman (Welket Bungué) investigating a child murder, as the child’s father (Scott Speedman) keeps lurking in the shadows, devouring purple candy bars. Our synopsis of strange events and geegaws has not even mentioned an automated autopsy machine, the performance artist with ears stuck all over himself (the extra ears can’t even hear, as one skeptic notes), nor the amazing cartilage-meets-birdsnest devices that cradle Tenser while he sleeps and eats his very uncomfortable breakfasts.
Crimes of the Future is about a lot of things, but it is surely about change, and how to approach it—including environmental change. Whether Cronenberg was thinking about this or not, the movie is also about aging, about navigating a body that no longer responds or behaves in the old ways. Viggo Mortensen brilliantly captures this, with his Karloffian grunting and his physical battles with his devices, as he writhes in them while struggling to do something as simple as swallowing. He slinks through the picture, frequently clad in a dark monk’s cloak, like Vincent Price in one of the Roger Corman Poe adaptations—movies that this film’s visual palette recall, actually, with their eccentric color design and splashed-around gothic shadows. (This is the first Cronenberg feature in ages without cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, the duties taken here by Douglas Koch, who shot McKellar’s Last Night. Howard Shore, whose collaboration with Cronenberg goes back to 1979’s The Brood, provides his usual tasteful score.)
Mortensen is in his early 60s now, and no longer billboards the absurdly chiseled definition of his younger self; the face is calmer, smoother, as though the new flesh has taken up residence. He doesn’t give the kind of performance that obviously dominates a film—his face is often half-hidden by the monk’s cowl, and he spends much of his time wryly savoring what the other oddballs are doing, not so much claiming physical space as crab-walking his way through the frame. But he does dominate the film, especially in its final section. I’d have to see Crimes of the Future again to be entirely sure of what’s going on here—and yet I like this movie’s vague dreaminess, which should allow people to take from it what they want. Some of the film’s one-liners sound written rather than the stuff people would say, and it’s too bad we don’t get more of whatever Seydoux’s Caprice is all about. But I’ll take its half-lit strangeness, its murmuring humor, and the uncanny, insinuating way it seems to embody a culture of the future.
June 3, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.