Saturday, 17 September 2022

Crimes Of The Future (2022) - Movie Review

Between the more feminist offerings coming out of Europe like Titane and Hatching, and heir to the throne Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor, it makes a lot of sense that King David would choose now to return to the genre that iconified him. While his recent run of more conventional, if cerebral, dramas has certainly produced some winners (A Dangerous Method took a second viewing for me to fully appreciate it, but appreciate it I do), there really is no replacing the kind of fleshy, practical effects-driven insanity he used to specialise in. As those aforementioned films have shown, there's certainly still a market for it. And even though this is the product of a script David wrote back in 2003, it’s only ‘dated’ in the sense that he is indeed returning to his glory days. His unsettling, gross, endlessly fascinating glory days.

Let’s start with the initial drive for the story being told, and indeed the world it takes place in: Performance art. Specifically, performance art as it exists in a future where humankind has gotten to the point where physical pain and disease through infections are non-existent. Graphic surgery is the public spectacle of choice, cutting things out of people or sticking new things on, and thanks to the world-building, it passes a couple of the ‘hey, wait a minute!’ genre logistics tests. “Surgery is the new sex”, to quote the film proper, and the performances combined with Douglas Koch’s cinematography certainly reinforce that notion. What is sex if not the manipulation of organs to produce gratification? Then again, maybe I’ve just heard too many rappers talk about getting into a woman’s guts.

And what the film ultimately says about performance art (not just this extreme variety, but at large) is quite fascinating. Equating the newfound organs that get pulled out of Viggo Mortensen’s Saul in his performances with art has a certain flowery logic to it. The ideas that engender art in the human mind tend to be rather nebulous things that can just… appear all of a sudden, and there’s something to be said about how much of the artist themselves is put into the art.  To say nothing of Saul himself, who has a real artistic sensibility to what he does. Hearing him describe another artist who had their mouth and eyes sewn shut, and several dozen ears grafted onto their body, as “escapist propaganda” gives me the impression that he and I would get along like a house on fire. Make of that what you will.

From there, the script expands into larger ideas to do with human evolution, our relationship with technology, and even where the two intersect and blur into each other. One of the more common phrases I see attached to David Cronenberg’s filmography is that he is fascinated by the ‘human/machine interface’, either in a literal sense to do with technology or in a more figurative sense to do with societal mechanisms (Violence in A History Of Violence, or the entertainment industry in Map To The Stars). However, I’d argue that’s only half-accurate. More so than between any two specific forms, it’s the interface itself that seems to be the common link in all of his stories. The ways in which we interact with the world and everything in it. Physically, emotionally, sexually, intellectually, with technology, societal structures, other people, or even with the self.

In that vein, the way the film gets into surgery-as-entertainment and other forms of self-harm in this world hits some strange notes, and I mean that in the best way I can. On one hand, it basically shows the pain response in humans being replaced with a pleasurable one, between the orgasmic reactions during the surgery, along with moments of people just cutting into each other with knives. The BDSM model of pleasure, essentially. And on the other hand, it makes for one of the more accurate depictions of the reality of self-harm I think I’ve ever seen on-film, as it’s tied less to directly wanting to feel pain and more to a desire just to feel.

It even gets into more modern questions concerning the choices people make about what to do with their own bodies, something that ends up obfuscating just how old this script ultimately is. It’d be easy for me to go full topical and bring in topics like abortion, or gender affirmation surgery, or just body modification in general… except much like that human/machine interface thing, I find that to be just a little too specific for what’s really going on here.

Mileage may vary, as it usually does with more subversive material like this, but what I primarily get out of this is a prevailing notion of body positivity. With the interjections from more bureaucratic forces within the film’s world (up to and including Kristen Stewart’s impossibly horny employee of the National Organ Registry), it presents a push-and-pull between the individual and the natural development of their self-image, and the larger societal structure that is hinged on being able to define ‘humanity’ in a very specific way. For as panoramic as the themes can get in this, it’s Saul’s personal character arc that ties everything together. Starting out with the stance that it is the removal of these new and seemingly extraneous organs is what makes him an artist, he eventually comes to the realisation that it is the creation of those organs that is the true art. Evolution as a naturally occurring form of art; it wouldn’t be the first time Cronenberg made that connection.

Back in 1997, Cronenberg described art and society as having a symbiotic relationship. Art subverts and is largely a reaction to the trappings of society, while society tries to assimilate it and co-opt it as part of itself. One cannot exist without the other. Evolution (in the scientific sense, not in the “I’m suddenly a lizard now” sense that pops up in science-fiction from time to time) is the act of adapting to live in a given environment; a reaction to surrounding factors. That adaptation is necessary because living things and the environment also cannot exist without each other. And if humanity in this film’s world has evolved to the point where the pain response is obsolete and disease is a long-lost memory… well, who’s to say that what keeps happening to Saul, along with many others as shown by the haunting opener, isn’t part of that same process? Both acts, evolution and art, are things that humanity needs in order to survive, after all.

And with this film’s final shot, as much a tribute to The Passion Of Joan Of Arc as it is to the filmed-silent aesthetic behind Cronenberg’s first film to be called Crimes Of The Future, it presents the idea that there is nothing that can happen to us as a species that we can’t create and adapt our way through. Change, for as painful and confusing as it can be, is ultimately a good thing. It’s just a matter of embracing it.

Much like with Titane (which has since become one of my new favourites), it shows an optimistic outlook on the development of humanity that will likely only appeal to those who can look past all the grime to even see it. It’s this aspect that attracts me to a lot of the edgelord shit I watch, where the subversive elements are the Bizarro candy coating for more uplifting ideas.  Armed with a highly capable cast, Howard Shore’s throbbing soundtrack, and some of the most confident world-building I’ve seen all year, David Cronenberg delivers some real thought-provoking ideas and the kind of grungy eroticism that is likely to turn off a lot of audiences, but also draw in just as many. All hail the king.

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