Review by Cat Earley
“Do you mind if I ask you something intimate?” says Kristen Stewart’s character to Viggo Mortensen’s in David Cronenberg’s new Crimes of the Future.
“No, go ahead.” he replies.
“That surgery is sex, isn’t it?” She continues, “surgery is the new sex.”
“Does there have to be a new sex?”
“Yes. Yes, it’s time.”
After nearly 20 years on paper, Crimes of the Future (David Cronenberg, 2022) finally makes its way onto the silver screen, arriving at Cannes this year to great fanfare and quite a few notable critical walkouts. Despite many graphic and visceral scenes though, Cronenberg’s latest film seems a bit mild compared to his usual gruesome taste, seemingly content to limit the gore to only that which is thematically required.
In Crimes of the Future’s dystopian world, humankind has begun to evolve at an expeditious pace to survive in an atmosphere polluted by plastics and the effects of climate change – humans no longer experience pain like they once did or develop infections, causing surgical procedures to be performed in far more casual settings for artistic and pleasure purposes. The film follows Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux), an internationally-famous performance artist couple who made their name by performing live surgical procedures on Tenser, who has a chronic medical condition that causes him to develop new organs at a rapid rate. The couple frequently report their latest findings to the Organ Registry, a new office upholding the government’s rules on controlling the expediency of human evolution, run by nervy Wippet (Don Mc Kellar) and unsettling Tamlin (Kristen Stewart), who seems to have become fascinated by both Tenser and his art.
The film is very much not beholden to its plot; in fact, it’s borderline plotless. Tamlin, for instance, who is arguably introduced initially as a character of interest has almost completely fulfilled her narrative goal by the first act – a doe-eyed spectator of Tenser’s performance, a reflective figure looking for meaning and solace in this very literal display of his ‘inner beauty.’ The echoes of her statement that “Surgery is the new sex” permeate the entire film, from the audience to the characters themselves; they signify the thematic core of Crimes of the Future, a longing for feeling and connection in a world that has necessitated a new form of intimacy. Or – perhaps – the film is not about intimacy, but about evolution itself. A large portion of the films plot focuses on the couple’s staged autopsy of Brecken (Sozos Sotiris), the murdered 8-year-old son of Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman). Dotrice is the founder of a radical evolutionary movement that promotes the use of invasive surgery on the digestive system to make plastics edible.
There are countless interpretations of Crimes of the Future, and doubtless more than one of them is accurate, but the film can be prone to losing itself in the barrage of all of these themes and ideas. The 90-minute runtime was a welcome and unexpected surprise amidst the stream of modern arthouse cinema normalising runtimes of up to 180 minutes, but it would be dishonest to say that Cronenberg managed to use this time effectively to convey his entire message. It’s a slightly over-ambitious film, but it’s enjoyable and enlightening all the same. Maybe it’s enough for the meaning of a film to provoke conversation and reflection. In this, Cronenberg has certainly succeeded.