'Crimes of the Future' review: A delirious ride of a film

The opening sequence of the maestro’s new film, Crimes of the Future shows him in a different, tad mellower frame of mind. That deviation in the mood suffuses the rest of the film as well

'Crimes of the Future' review: A delirious ride of a film

Namrata Joshi

Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg’s oeuvre is one from the West that most scrupulously approximates the veebhatsa rasa of the Indian aesthetic construct of navarasas (nine emotions) outlined for the performing arts. It is horror that disgusts than send that proverbial chill down the spine, is all about evoking repulsion than terror.

The opening sequence of the maestro’s new film, Crimes of the Future, that dropped on Mubi on July 29, shows him in a different, tad mellower frame of mind. That deviation in the mood suffuses the rest of the film as well. Identified with the body horror genre, 79-year-old Cronenberg continues his explorations with drastic transformations and unendurable violence inflicted on the human body—physical and psychological, scientific, medical, biological and technological—but in a curiously affecting, if not entirely sentimental, way. It’s not his brand of quintessential horror that shocks but the unexpected, off the cuff tenderness.

Crimes of the Future comes after a long hiatus of eight years and is named after his own 1970 film, though it has little else in common with it. It premiered in the competition section at the Cannes Film Festival and, as is usual with Cronenberg, left the critics and audience polarized.

We enter Cronenberg’s grotesque vision with a mother inflicting untold brutality on her 8-year-old son. She feels revulsion than love for the “creature”. “It” is a “thing” for her than a throbbing human being. But her horrifying behaviour has a layer of poignancy as it leads us into a world where people are facing deterioration and debasement in the name of evolution to adapt to the plastic environment and synthetic reality around them. Pollution, climate change anyone? At the head of it are radical evolutionists who have modified their digestive systems to eat industrial waste and toxins are being consumed in the form of candy bars.

There are new hormones in the blood stream, new vestigial organs growing within the human body, more specifically that of performance artiste Saul Tenser (Cronenberg’s frequent collaborator Viggo Mortensen). Each of these must be registered with the National Organ Registry from “security standpoint”. To counter the possible threat of human transformation turning uncontrollable and insurrectional. Pain and infections are disappearing, rather physical pain is left only for an artiste to feel. Is this all for human good?

The other intertwined thread links art with medical science and the human body. A tumour or lump could be a work of art, newer organs are tattooed, live autopsies done in public. Tenser’s partner is Caprice (Lea Seydoux), a former trauma surgeon turned celebrity artiste, who removes his organs in performative surgeries for the world to witness. More a visual spectacle than just a necessary procedure, surgery itself is defined as the new sex. And Tenser’s own organography—or the “inner beauty pageant”—is like an archive of his artistic work. Worthy like a that of a Picasso, Bacon or Duchamp.

Cronenberg’s conceit is inexplicable, freaky and preposterous at one level and a scary warning about the human metamorphoses, deformation and distortion at another. I was riveted at the start as he goes about laying the ground or when he mounts the breathtaking set-pieces of performative surgeries, but, as we move further into the narrative, an overwhelming ennui, tedium, and apathy also set in alongside. The philosophizing often detracts than engage, situations get repetitive and the lumbering, meandering plot goes round and round in exasperating circles. All the actors serve Cronenberg’s concept well but Kirstin Stewart as the Registry bureaucrat is way too mannered and annoys with her indecipherable mumbles and studied tentativeness.

Cronenberg teases, troubles, and provokes but Crimes of the Future keeps swinging between the visceral and vapid and doesn’t build up to something substantial or satisfying. However, long after viewing it some of its bizarre vistas linger on and doom-filled score continues to haunt.

It’s difficult to give out meanings in piecemeal descriptions and laboured interpretations of the film. No viewer of the film can solve the jigsaw puzzle for another. That’s because Cronenberg doesn’t tell a story. You are unlikely to be able to grapple with and fathom his audacious and ambitious vision wholly. His cinema is that of an experience. Encountering and living through the dystopic, uncertain future, Crimes of the Future, is a delirious, if not entirely pleasant and successful ride of a film. Love it or hate it but do board it.

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