David Cronenberg Commits the Crime of Self-reference, with Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux, Kristen Stewart, and Verve



It is a crime to reach backwards for inspiration rather than to continue evolving?  When is an artist simply falling back on his own “greatest hits” in lieu of the expected strides forward?  

The twilight phases of many an innovative career, from Brian De Palma (see: 2012’s Passion) to David Bowie (his album The Next Day) to David Lynch (Twin Peaks: The Return) has been capped with such retrospective spark.  This is the list that Crimes of the Future belongs on.  The now seventy-nine-year-old David Cronenberg has not only returned to filmmaking after nearly a decade away, but he’s returning to some very specific themes and ideas that have been circulating within his work for years.  

Famously, Cronenberg has long made a reputation (if not a career) conflating the inherent grossness and the outer beauty of the human body.  In the end, the former warps the latter with repulsive abandon.  The resulting “body horror” has ruminated on uneasy notions of machine comparisons (the natural and the man-made), gender fluidity and breakdown, the mysteries of reproduction, and where humanity, in all its collective fixations on the human contraption, might be physically headed.  And while the term that’s become all but synonymous with Cronenberg- “body horror”- has that irritating whiff of saturation, it nevertheless works as a tidy, apt descriptor of his now-classics such as VideodromeThe BroodScanners, and… Crimes of the Future.  

But not this Crimes of the Future.  Cronenberg originally affixed the title to an otherwise specifically unrelated 1970 freak-out feature.  Its description fits the body horror bill as well as anything else can or would, what with its plague-centric ooze-spewing and all.  That Crimes of the Future (found on the Criterion physical release of The Brood, among other places) is a sixty-three-minute obscurity made so early in Cronenberg’s career that he lacked the wherewithal to capture synch sound.  A far cry from the impressive breadth of eerily fleshy custom-crafted sets, props and locales that comprise so much of the 2022 Crimes.  

Furthering the expanse is the presence of bona fide movie stars in the lead roles.  Viggo Mortensen (a grizzled veteran of Cronenberg’s canon), Léa Seydoux, and Kristen Stewart (both new to Cronenberg but seem right at home).  All prove to be impressively more than fully committed to this expansive yet personal vision.  At some non-specified point in the future, when people routinely interface with machines to manipulate their own bodies, public surgery becomes performative. Mortensen’s and Seydoux’s characters, Tenser and Caprice, are a couple deeply involved in this scene, with her cutting him open as public, crowd-pleasing art.  Some, including Stewart’s perpetually lurking National Organ Registry representative, derive sexual pleasure from this sort of thing.  In fact, it’s really caught on in this passively freaked out world.  Still, when it comes down to it, she has a penchant for “the old sex”.  Not everyone cares for that anymore.

Never mind the clutter of the world, with human pain and disease now things of the past, uncleanliness seems to signify a certain godliness.  It’s a dark, murky, and musty world where some people are showing signs of evolving even further in heretofore unseen ways.  Leading this process, we come to learn, is a radical group of intentional “evolutionists”.  As Tenser gets more and more involved in a law enforcement effort to close in on this outfit, he is also pursued to publicly dissect a young boy who was murdered by his mother in the first scenes of the film.  Somehow, the boy was born with the ability to eat and digest plastic.  Is this a purely genetic next step that the evolutions are championing?

What a film this is.  As unsettling and squirm-inducing as it can often be, Crimes of the Future is also weirdly comforting insofar as it’s nice to have Cronenberg back doing what he’s always been best at.  Some, like critic Mark Kermode, are quick to point out that Cronenberg brings no ideas to this table that he hasn’t previously explored- arguably more effectively- in previous body horror outings decades ago.  The question then becomes… is that a crime?  If so, it seems more like a crime of the past.  This very screenplay, in fact, was written by him to be produced back in 2003.  This long-gestating birth of this incarnation of Crimes of the Future may not be an evolutionary leap for Cronenberg, but it’s clear in its warped inspiration that this preeminent artist’s own next development is in fact naturally retrospective.  And it should be perfectly legal for that to be the way of things.

Decal/Neon’s Blu-ray release of 2022’s Crimes of Future is absolutely recommended as the go-to method to experience it at home.  That is, at least until the forthcoming 4K edition drops at the end of January 2023.  Bonus features are unfortunately thin, with only a brief EPK-style making-of featurette and theatrical trailers.  If any recent movie cries out for further analysis and the director’s own in-depth musings, it’s this one.  But as it stands, this Blu-ray is as sharply next level as any Crimes of the Future experience currently is.