Despite reports of walkouts at the Cannes Film Festival, David Cronenberg’s “Crimes of the Future” is by no means a shock-value affair — but it is not advisable to watch during a three-course meal. Though it certainly dabbles in body horror, the film is surprisingly more of a pleasurable sci-fi noir.
Cronenberg is a talented world builder, and his skills shine throughout “Crimes of the Future.” Sharing the same name as his 1970 film, it presents what may be Cronenberg’s most pure venture into the science fiction genre. This may be Cronenberg’s first film since 2014’s “Maps to the Stars,” but the script was finished back in 1998.
While discussing the sci-fi genre, Cronenberg said, “People who engage with this narrative will go along with anything as long as you are being honest within the narrative.” Playing by these rules, “Crimes of the Future” does an excellent job enveloping the audience in its own strangeness.
Set in the future, the film shows humans evolving to an increasingly synthetic environment. The body is constantly mutating and transforming, and the definition of what it means to be human is no longer concrete. In a pushback against this pattern, a secret government agency sends Timlin (Kristen Stewart) and Wippet (Don McKellar) to track this evolution.
“Crimes of the Future” is a visual palate cleanser. Rather than stretching the limits of computer-generated imaging, the film expertly incorporates physical effects and prosthetics, which are complemented by unobtrusive computer graphics work. The resulting product feels both timeless and grounded. Unique contraptions, such as surgery beds and devices meant to aid in digestion, are perfectly otherworldly and lend the film a distinct aesthetic. As the actors interact with these physical objects, the film yields captivating results.
At the heart of this story lies the artistic relationship between two performance artists: Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux). This dynamic successfully grounds the high-concept science fiction with a metaphor about performance, art and creativity.
Most inhabitants of this futuristic world cannot feel physical pain, and bacterial infections have become relics of former humanity. Due to his “Accelerated Evolution Syndrome,” Saul begins to grow mutated, nonfunctional organs. His partner, Caprice, tattoos these organs, removing and displaying his mutations in sold-out shows.
Mortensen and Seydoux shine in their subtlety, allowing Cronenberg’s world to feel at ease within itself. As a result, the film does not appear strained to convince the audience of its oddness. Conveying the disturbing discomfort of inhabiting an evolving body, Mortensen aces the physicality of his part. He spends parts of the movie clutching his throat, lightly choking as he tries to swallow in order to demonstrate Saul’s disabling digestive problems.
Though Mortensen’s performance is more reserved, Seydoux and Stewart add charm and energy to the film. With her usual nervous energy, Stewart beautifully befits her bureaucratic character.
One of the film’s central conflicts is the decision of how far Saul and Caprice should go in their performance art. They describe and defend their artistic expression, but they also ponder its limits. At times, the plot feels like a metaphor for the filmmaking process, as the artists balance their vision with fears of going too far and question the ways political conflict seeps into their work.
Though the film centers on artistic metaphor, it also serves as a contemplation on climate change in that the changes to the human body are portrayed as a result of industrialization. However, rather than feeling preachy, the film revels in a futuristic minimalism that successfully prevents its meditations from straying too far from its characters and story.
“Crimes of the Future” is a palatable oddball film grounded by Cronenberg’s directorial skills and a talented ensemble. The refreshing creativity and aesthetically pleasing, minimalistic noir are enough to captivate even those not inclined to the horror genre — unless you’re a weak-stomached Cannes attendee, in which case you can sit this one out.