It’s a famous pitfall of bad science-fiction that its characters can spend the first three chapters, or first forty minutes, setting out the various ways in which the world depicted differs from our current world. “Krangoldsen: The Overlords of Zurgatsk bid you step inside the Optimiser 3000 in order to receive your daily dose of vitamins intravenously,” a broad caricature of such fare might go. David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future, premiering in Cannes, is not bad science-fiction, exactly, but it is rather on the talky side for a film that had been advertised as being a return to shocks for the master of body horror.
Crimes of the Future, set in a dystopia where humans have done away with the concept of physical pain, and some people are able to grow independent internal organs, does have a fair bit of body…well, horror is not quite the word somehow, as all of the guts and flesh stuff is presented far too matter-of-factly to disturb or squick out. Somehow, in a film which shows a live operation on a character played as a kind of sordid art performance, or a character essentially fellating somebody’s wound, or someone killing their child, the shocks do not seem to register. That could be because of the constant chatter about this new world order, which sees every single aspect of this universe explained to us in sledgehammer terms; and it could be, too, because Cronenberg seems uninterested in pushing the disorder much further into the realm of discomfort. For instance, one scene, depicting a P.T. Barnum-style autopsy of a small, dead boy, could have been taken a lot further; the pay-off, featuring a close-up on a churning plethora of guts in the infant’s stomach, feels somehow timid.
The film’s beginning is startling—and is unfortunately not matched in terms of oomph by the rest of the movie. Here, a strange child playing by the shore is called in to the house by his mother, who cautions him not to eat anything he finds in the sea. Later, we find the boy chomping into a plastic wastepaper bin, seated on the floor of a nasty bathroom: something is clearly up with this boy. So far, so powerful: Cronenberg sites his film in a kind of derelict, dirty future, which nicely offsets our sense of mounting disquiet and curiosity. From there, we rapidly shift to two more characters: Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and his partner Caprice (Lea Seydoux), a pair of performance artists specializing in the live operations mentioned above. (It should be added here that everybody’s names in the film are a joy, from Tenser and Caprice to “Djuna Dotrice” and Kristen Stewart’s character, who is simply called “Timlin.”) Tenser is a physically abnormal specimen who has the ability to grow new organs, and his partner removes these from his body in live shows that have a clear sexual flavor (as Cronenberg heavily underlines to us on several occasions).
All of this takes place in a reasonably well-imagined universe: Tenser sleeps in a bed that looks like half a walnut, suspended in mid-air, and with strange tendrils that plug into his body; he has a disturbing chair that feeds him according to his needs; elsewhere, the world depicted has a kind of sleazy late-night car-park kind of vibe. This seems like a good world in which to discuss issues about the boundaries of our humanity: where does our body finish and technology take over? At what stage do we become so divorced from our natures that we turn into mere creatures? What role does pain play in offsetting everything that makes us truly exist? These are some sizable questions for a film to ask, but it’s unclear, here, whether Cronenberg has the means to go much beyond asking them.
In part that’s due to a very slowly-staged film full of discursive scenes in which characters seem to articulate the crux of the movie. There is so much information to take in, presented inorganically: so, we learn that there is a register of new organs, and that Tenser is an informant, and that there is a system of tattooing new organs, and that some humans can now develop whole new digestive systems. Far from being a nasty film that prompts real sickness in an audience, Crimes of the Future often has the slightly haggard feel of a New Yorker cartoon making tired observations about, for instance, apps having gone too far.
“For example, there’s a strange moment when Caprice is about to dissect a body, in which she refers to the corpse, and then adds, “Corporeal. Corpulent. Body words.” Erm, OK?”
At times, Cronenberg’s dialogue is reminiscent of late period Woody Allen, or late period Jim Jarmusch—Only Lovers Left Alive, say—where those writers seem to underline their own jokes or ideas for the benefit of an audience, in a slightly preening manner. For example, there’s a strange moment when Caprice is about to dissect a body, in which she refers to the corpse, and then adds, “Corporeal. Corpulent. Body words.” Erm, OK? We all know basic Latin here, let’s get back to the blood and guts. Throughout, Cronenberg can’t show something but he has to point it out didactically for those who might be too dense to pick up on it. At times, this can lead to a few well-polished jokes—the film has a nice line in deadpan—but all too often there seems to be a filling-up of space with psychobabble.
Crimes of the Future is a slight film—perhaps purposely so, from a director whose years of staging pure gross-out are long behind him. Some of its ruminations have value as the work of a late master pondering his own act of creation, since much of the film centers on artists creating shocking bodily work—but, and this is a shame, Crimes of the Future can also be lumbering and, whisper it, boring. Kristen Stewart’s Timlin is the only properly fun character in the film, a weirdly impish creation with a halting voice and body language, who is sexually awakened by Tenser and Caprice’s performances, but this movie doesn’t know what to do with her, and like so much else here she is simply discarded after a while. Advance buzz about the film had promised there would be walkouts, and indeed there were several at my screening, but can anybody say for sure that they were motivated by disgust and not tedium?