Crimes of the Future
starring Viggo Mortensen, Lea Seydoux, Kristen Stewart, Scott Speedman, Welket BungueDon McKellar, Yorgos Pirpassopoulos, Tanaya Beatty and Nadia Litz. Written and directed by David Cronenberg. Opens June 3 at TIFF Bell Lightbox.107 minutes. STC
CANNES, France — For this year’s 75th anniversary, the Cannes Film Festival has updated its floating red staircase intro at screenings. The names of favorite directors have been added, one per stair, with David Cronenberg getting his own red step just a few below Martin Scorsese, the director at the top.
“Ah, that’s so sweet!” Cronenberg says with a smile, when I show him a photo of his spot among the stairs.
“They’re saying that (Scorsese) is on a higher level than I am and I’m fine with that. But they like me anyway!”
The Toronto writer/director is genuinely touched to be recognized by a festival where, at 79, he’s once again competing for the Palme d’Or, the top prize. He’s Canada’s sole challenger among the 21-film international competition.
His body horror thriller “Crimes of the Future,” starring Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux and Kristen Stewart, had its world premiere here Monday night at the Palais des Festivals, receiving strong audience applause and generally high marks from critics. It’s the sixth time Cronenberg has competed for the Palme, which will be awarded Saturday night at the fest’s closing ceremony.
“It’s not the Palme d’Or that excites me,” Cronenberg tells the Star, in an interview on a hotel balcony overlooking a lush garden, not much more than a stone’s throw away from the busy waterfront Croisette promenade. Dressed all in black for the interview, he seems relaxed after taking the train here from Paris the day before.
“It’s just screening here that’s exciting. Once I hear that theme song (‘The Carnival of the Animals,’ by Camille Saint-Saëns), my heart will start pounding then. That’s partly because the movie is going to be shown and partly because of the history I have with Cannes. That goes back, really, to the early ’70s. It’s a good history, very good. Actually, it’s very, very good.”
Cronenberg has never won the Palme, but he did receive a special jury prize for “audacity” at the 1996 festival, for his dystopian drama “Crash,” a story of people sexually aroused by car accidents.
His new film, “Crimes of the Future,” takes a creepy step deeper into sexual pathology. It’s about people of the near future who get off on altering their insides and/or outsides, either through biological methods (growing bizarre new organs) or sculpting by scalpel (“Surgery is the new sex,” is their motto). Still others have figured out how to consume plastics and other synthetic substances in place of organic food, a narrative thread that builds intrigue. The government wants to take control, fearing “insurrectional” human evolution.
The movie shares little in common with a 1970 Cronenberg film of the same name (he really digs the title) but it has a lot in common with “Painkillers,” a film about a future world without pain. The project was announced at the 2005 Cannes fest, from a script Cronenberg wrote between 1998 and 2000, but which he never got around to making for various reasons.
Producer Robert Lantos told Cronenberg he should revisit the “Painkillers” script. The filmmaker initially balked at the idea, arguing that technology has changed so much in the past quarter century that the sci-fi concepts were “probably totally irrelevant” now.
“And he said, ‘No, it’s more relevant than ever.’ That was his quote… and I thought he’s actually right. It’s bizarre. It is more relevant than it was then. Then it was kind of sci-fi and now it’s like reality. So I thought, well, then that’s an interesting thing to do. And I did like the writing, I liked the dialogue and the characters. To me, it’s like a script that somebody else wrote. That’s often the case.”
“Crimes of the Future” is almost completely based on the original “Painkillers” script, Cronenberg says, including the part about people consuming plastic — which a lot of us are doing inadvertently, according to recent news reports from health authorities warning of microplastics getting into the food chain.
Says Cronenberg: “I did see the (health alert) a couple of weeks or more ago that showed that many people now have plastic in the bloodstream and quite a bit before that it was 80 percent of people have plastic in their flesh. Microplastics, of course, was not a word in 2000. So is (the film) prophecy? Is (it) visionary? It’s accidental, but to me it was obvious in 2000 that were just totally f—ing up the planet. And a lot of that has to do with plastic since 2000.”
Cronenberg has been telling US trade publications that he expects to see some people walk out of his film in the first five minutes and more during the final 20 minutes. It is indeed a harrowing watch, but no more extreme than many other Cronenberg nightmares, like the exploding heads of “Scanners” and the gruesome man-to-insect morphing of “The Fly.”
Does he enjoy scaring people? As usual, he gives a qualified answer.
“I have these interesting thoughts, these visuals, these images, and these strange connections, and they troubled me, they fascinated me, or they just delighted me. I’m inviting (moviegoers) to come along with me and see what you think of these things. That’s basically my approach.
“I don’t mind if I scare people. But I don’t need to scare people.”
“Crimes of the Future” is Cronenberg’s first feature film in eight years. His Hollywood satire “Maps to the Stars” also premiered at Cannes in competition. He keeps busy — TV guest spots and a planned second novel — but he doesn’t feel the need to be constantly making movies, even though he recently announced another sci-fi film he plans to make: “The Shrouds,” starring Vincent Cassel , about a man’s attempt to communicate with his dead wife.
Cronenberg fans should probably not be in too much of a hurry to see “The Shrouds.” As the father of three children and grandfather of four, he’s happy now to enjoy life and just take things at his own pace.
“I’m a very, very happy person. I can chill very easily. I can be passionate about a project that I’m doing, but I’m not desperate to do anything you know. I’m happy to just float.”
He adds: “If I’m alive, I’m going to make another movie. But if I’m dead, I probably won’t!”
REVIEW OF CRIMES OF THE FUTURE
Welcome to the nightmare ahead, where people grow new organs as art, modify body parts for fashion and consume plastic for food.
“Crimes of the Future” presents a world to come that’s made all the more terrifying by David Cronenberg, master filmmaker and seer of dark visions.
His return to the body horror genre that made his name is in some ways a greatest hits collection of his macabre fascination, with callbacks — all subconscious, he insists — to the Cronenbergian realms of “Videodrome,” “The Fly,” “eXistenZ, ” “Dead Ringers” and others.
“Crimes of the Future” shares mostly just a title with an earlier Cronenberg film. Its essential DNA comes from the shelved “Painkillers” script of more than 20 years ago. Considering what he’s conjured here out of a leftover idea, you have to wonder what other great stuff he’s been sitting on.
“Crimes” was filmed in and around Athens, where grungy interiors and bleak exteriors (a ruined and abandoned ship speaks of social disarray) create a noir atmosphere, courtesy of Carol Spier’s production design. Howard Shore’s score of gloom and wonder imparts a mood of impending revolution.
And revolution is indeed underway, in the person of hooded and hermitic performance artist Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen). He has learned how to grow new organs within his body, hatching them while he sleeps inside a plugged-in sarcophagus that resembles a giant walnut shell.
These “neo-organs” are removed by Saul’s partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux), a former surgeon, in public displays that resemble the art salons of old. (They’re not alone: other people engage in such knife blade antics, since pain and infection have been all but eliminated and “surgery is the new sex” for thrill seekers.)
The government of the day isn’t quite sure what to do about neo-organs and the “desktop surgery” fad, other than to control them. A National Organ Registry has been created, run by bureaucratic voyeurs Wippet (Don McKellar) and Timlin (Kristen Stewart) who seek to avoid “insurrectional” evolution that might destroy whatever remains of civilization. Saul and Caprice are happy to assist them, tattooing Saul’s new organs so they can be easily logged and traced.
The cops are on the case, too, with a “New Vice Unit” represented by a detective played by Welket Bungué. hey understandably wonders why Saul’s neo-organs are considered an art form akin to Picasso’s creations while the tumor on his own body is just a potentially dangerous nuisance.
Another group, led by Scott Speedman’s Lang Dotrice, hovers in the shadows but seeks broader public attention. They are people who have learned how to consume plastics and other synthetic materials as food and who want more to join them. Lang is planning a public autopsy — on the body of his murdered eight-year-old son — to dramatize the cause.
As horrifying as this sounds, and it is, there’s also much wit in “Crimes.” Such as when Timlin, besotted with Saul, tells him “you can be open with me.” This to a man who had a zipper installed in his abdomen for easier surgical access.
There’s much happening here as Cronenberg sardonically comments on cosmetic surgery, environmental destruction and the feeling of all artists, himself included, that putting your work before the public is akin to being operated on in the city square.
If there’s any downside to “Crimes,” it’s that it introduces characters and story arcs that are somewhat unresolved, although that’s likely a deliberate move by Cronenberg. Like all great entertainers, he leaves us wanting more, even if in this case satisfaction comes at the end of a scalpel.
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