Crimes of the Future is Brilliant Body Noir
Surgery is the new sex. And body noir is the new body horror.
Swapping shock-and-awe for more insidious, creeping, institutional evils, David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future reinvents the horror master’s old formulas to create a new kind of sci-fi noir. One that ponders how we can remain human amidst biological and evolutionary exploitation. One that’s doused in shadows and cynicism, but that finds its disillusionment in the world of art and creativity as much as it does in traditional institutions. And one that, if you open yourself to its perverse charms, will creep and crawl under your skin and stick with you for days.
Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) is creating new organs. Aided by the squirming mechanics of next-gen biotech and the vision of his performance art partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux), Saul manifests novel internal body parts, only to see Caprice operate on him in front of an ever-growing global audience. The excision keeps him human. The new wave art finds meaning in the chaos of crumbling architecture: organized society and the human body are deteriorating in parallel.
In this future, the glue that held humanity together has all but evaporated, replaced by something far more nefarious. Cronenberg never offers a full explanation of civilization’s downfall and the rise of the “new flesh,” so to speak, but instead chooses to render the aftermath in such stark gloom and despair that we can’t help but feel the long shadow left by whatever led to this. Saul and Caprice must register his new organs, and in doing so, are drawn into the dueling worlds of future-crime revolutionaries and government interlopers who want to control human evolution. A system rebuilding itself is complicated; performance art is the only pure thing left.
Or that’s what Saul believes. Because at its heart, Crimes of the Future operates as a body noir, replicating but contorting the traditions of the genre by setting its sights on artists as much as on institutions. The dystopian equivalents of the Great Depression and World War II are left off-screen, but their effects are powerfully felt, and this new era mirrors those of both the present and past.
Saul and Caprice’s experience at the early-stage National Organ Registry reflects a mistrust of government institutions that have since fallen – even their rag-tag successors are worthy of skepticism. A heavy, damp paranoia pursues Saul, from his work with the newfangled “New Vice” police unit to his excursions into the underground art world. Saul trusts nobody, not even his own body. And a thick layer of sexuality pervades all of it: the way Cronenberg splits and upends the traditional femme fatale is at once brilliant and altogether unsurprising.
Cronenberg draws on the history of the form to create something altogether new: a first-of-its kind noir, one rooted in the ways our bodies follow the same destructive metamorphosis of our institutions. And the deeper Saul goes into understanding his body and the culture that exploits it, the further afield Crimes travels from its predecessors. Cronenberg sets his sights less on the systems that let people down, and more on the people who move to exploit the cracks and bubbles that form as those systems fail. Those who cloak their corruption in creativity, donning the mask of the artist in an effort to profit amidst the misery of others.
Many have categorized Crimes as an art world satire – and it’s funny enough to work on that level, to be sure. But its core is full of misery and dread and guilt. It’s a bleak, honest look at the ways artists can capitalize on suffering.
Cronenberg’s biggest feat is the way he expands this new world around Saul and Caprice. Crimes spends time with the Organ Registry’s awkward, aroused bureaucrats, Timlin (Kristen Stewart) and Wippet (Don McKellar). Stewart’s halting, charged performance is deceivingly important, while McKellar’s cloaked lust is most representative of the future on display in Crimes (he leads Saul into something called the “Internal Beauty Pageant”). The film also branches off into the efforts of the future police’s New Vice Unit (“New Vice was a sexier title, and sexier titles get more funding,” one character bleakly intones in what could be an explanation of this film’s disappointingly bland title), as well as the supposedly subversive activities of a group devoted to the natural evolution of the human body. Crimes fails to fully explore many of these aspects of future society, but instead gives us enough of a peak to let our imagination finish the job of world-building.
These dead-end sub-plots may strike some as a weakness, but if you’re paying attention, Crimes knows where it’s headed all along. Even as it builds its singular world further out, it trains its eye more narrowly onto Saul’s journey from used to user. In a striking final shot, Cronenberg lets us know right where the heart of this story was the whole time. The audience could take a lesson from the characters of this futuristic society: just because you wanted something different doesn't mean what you got is bad. If you go see Crimes of the Future, leave your expectations at the door. You might just discover that cinema is the new sex.