“I’m basically a romantic,” David Cronenberg says, somewhat unexpectedly. This comes after my admission that I found his new movie, Crimes of the Future, surprisingly moving, and before the 78-year-old auteur reminds me, with a laugh, that a photo of kidney stones he recently passed is currently available for purchase as an NFT.
The laugh is crucial. Over his five-decade career — from the head-exploding thrills of his early-career cult classic Scanners, to the fleshy body-plugs of eXistenZ and Videodrome and Jeff Goldblum’s bug-goo regurgitation in The Fly, to even the sight of Julianne Moore being pummeled to death with an award statuette in 2014’s Maps to the Stars (a movie released just after Moore finally, in real life, won her first Oscar) — Cronenberg has earned distinction as a master of body horror. But it’s a title he wears somewhat uneasily, as if to own it would be to take himself too seriously. He’s even dismissive of the term “body horror” itself, muttering, when it is invoked, “Whatever that means, ‘cause that’s not my phrase.”
You can certainly see how the rest of us got there. Sitting at the grim intersection of science fiction and gory, outlandish transformations of the human corpus, body horror is a signature of Cronenberg’s work. And Crimes of the Future, which stars Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux, Kristen Stewart, and Scott Speedman, is no exception. This is a movie set at a time when humans have lost the ability to feel physical pain. The trade-off, if you’d call it that, is that many of them have also gained the ability to spontaneously grow new, completely novel organs — an “insurrection” of the body, as one character calls it.
And so you get moments that any fan of eXistenZ or Videodrome-era Cronenberg might expect of his work. You get Stewart having a little too much fun digging around in Mortensen’s guts with an endoscope and a bed-like machine equipped with scalpels and robot arms used both for sexual pleasure and art; the machine was originally designed to perform autopsies, but Mortensen and Seydoux’s characters, who are performance artists, appropriate it to perform live, surgical removals of his rebellious new organs. You get a subset of society that can apparently only eat synthetic materials: The movie opens with a young boy sitting beneath his bathroom sink and eating a garbage pail. You get Seydoux unzipping Mortensen’s belly — there is literally a zipper — to tongue his insides, and Mortensen, in the same moment, cautioning: “Careful, don’t spill.”
Still, the project — which was originally written by Cronenberg in 1998 and has arrived in 2022 without any changes to its script — is way too broad in its interests to be reduced to the body horror of it all. It presents a series of physical norms that constantly throw society’s ideas about the body into question. And, like much of Cronenberg’s filmography, it is also a film concerned with love.
“I believe in love and romantic affairs and all of that stuff,” he says. “To me, that’s basic to living, and it’s necessary. I was married for 43 years, and had children, and grandchildren. That, to me, is essential to living a really full human life. So it’s in the movies. Each movie is a weird love affair. Or even, up front, a normal love affair.”
Crimes of the Future’s central romance — between Mortensen’s Saul Tenser and Seydoux’s Caprice, respectively — veers dangerously, titillatingly close to normal. The movie’s bloody extremes are not at all beside the point, otherwise our introduction to this story wouldn’t be a young boy sitting under his bathroom sink to eat a garbage pail and subsequently being murdered for it. But the odd power of these moments has more than a little to do with how grounded they are in the movie’s scenes from an almost-marriage. Like Dead Ringers, this is a movie with more than a passing interest in sexual and romantic envy, only in this case, that envy is bound up with artistic envy, the messy — and very human — dramas of what it means to be in bed with your closest collaborator, what it means to make an art out of opening oneself up, letting your guts hang out.
“I’m showing that an artist is exposing this innermost, deepest, most intimate part of himself and offering that up to an audience,” Cronenberg says. “And doing so is incredibly vulnerable to rejection, to anger, to misunderstanding. This is basically the archetype of what an artist — a serious, passionate artist — is.”
Focus in on the body horror, the director reiterates, and you risk missing this other stuff — not only the passionate romance, but the humor. Even that great Kristen Stewart line, “Surgery is the new sex,” that’s become a meme since its appearance in Crimes of the Future’s trailers, plays differently in context. What seemed intriguingly sexy-silly in the trailer is written off, in the moment, as yet another epiphany brought on by art.
On the other hand, Stewart (playing an overzealous worker bee, alongside the equally great Don McKellar, in an office called the National Organ Registry) sells the line so well because her character means it, and the movie lends it passionate credibility. This is not a derisive intellectual exercise, nor, Cronenberg tells me, is it exactly a critique of the art world. The blood-and-guts realities and seemingly satirical jabs are effectively embedded in feelings. Running parallel to the movie’s artist-couple thread and the organ-growth antics, for example, is an entire subplot dedicated to a father’s grief. All of this within an impeccable style that is never as cool or removed as it may seem on the surface.
“We’re very emotional creatures,” Cronenberg says. “And even what seems to be a cold rationality is really never just that. I appreciate that and I exploit it and I use it — because I feel it.”
When we talk, Cronenberg is rounding off the final leg of a press tour that had begun over a month earlier, in the run-up to the debut of Crimes of the Future at Cannes. Contrary to what we may have heard stateside, the movie was not met with confusion or walkouts beyond the press screening, where walkouts are the norm.
That’s a nice change from, say, the reception of Cronenberg’s masterpiece Crash, his J.G. Ballard adaptation about a group of car-crash fanatics, led by James Spader, which plays far less scandalously now than it did back in 1996. Back then, Cronenberg found himself mired in odd speculations, typical of the time, over the negative impact the movie would have on the public.
“There was a very weird worry about car crashes,” he says. “Ted Turner said, ‘Teenagers will have sex in cars.’ And I thought: ‘Well, teenagers have been having sex in cars since the beginning of cars, so this movie is not gonna effect that one way or another.’” The movie was attacked endlessly. This time around, not so much. “I don’t think people are gonna immediately look for surgical kits on the internet,” Cronenberg says. (On the other hand, it might be interesting if they did.)
Crimes of the Future was written only a couple of years after Crash was released, and the fact that the script was not revised between then and now is only more intriguing for the distance it allowed Cronenberg to have from the project. “I was directing it like it was somebody else’s script,” he says, “which gives you an objectivity.” His last feature, the satirical-and-not Maps to the Stars, was released almost a decade ago, but he hasn’t exactly been twiddling his thumbs in the interim: There’s been acting work, on shows like Star Trek: Discovery and the anthology horror series Slasher, and his debut novel, Consumed, which was released in 2014.
Crimes of the Future was a project he’d in fact forgotten about (a few aborted attempts to get it made notwithstanding) until Robert Lantos, a producer, phoned him and suggested he give it another look. “I said, ‘Eh, I think I’m just going to write another novel,’” says Cronenberg. He was certain that the script was no longer relevant “because it’s got science fiction elements, and technology has moved on. Even the internet was hardly existing then.” Lantos rightly insisted that it was more relevant than ever.
There’s a word that gets thrown around about artists of Cronenberg’s ilk: prescient. One of Crimes of the Future’s multiple sub-strands involves the ingestion of synthetic materials. Some bodies in the film are so adapted to modern life, it’s as if they’ve taken very new ideas about microplastics (which have recently been found, not only in the human body, but in freshly fallen snow in the Arctic) and run with them into the future.
Cronenberg is fascinated by this discovery to an almost geeky extent. As relevant as Crimes of the Future is, however, he was not planning for this. “Nobody was talking about microplastics in 1998,” he says. “I mean, there might have been some scientists who came up with that expression, but it wasn’t public. I certainly didn’t know anything about it.” Now, he gets to enjoy having tapped into a cultural moment, if only accidentally. “I don’t think prophecy is what art is about. But sometimes you just happen to catch the zeitgeist — you become predictive somehow.”
Crimes of the Future may be a project filmed from the first and only draft of a script written over 20 years ago, but, of course, Cronenberg himself has changed over that time. His approach on set has been vastly simplified, in part thanks to changes in technology, which allow him to be more confident that he’s gotten the takes that he wants without having to film much additional coverage — but also because of confidence in itself. “It takes a while before you understand what kind of filmmaker you are and what your sensibility is,” he says. These days, he explains, “I’m kind of a minimalist. And actors who hadn’t worked with me before, like Scott [Speedman], were kind of shocked.” He trusts his actors. He does not rehearse them. They show up prepared.
Mortensen’s work in Crimes is especially deft — which is saying something for an actor whose multiple collaborations with Cronenberg, most notably A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, offer an incredible mix of movie-star charisma and a character actor’s egoless flexibility. This is a combination that Cronenberg tells me he likes. “I’ve always liked actors who had the presence of a star, the power, but are really much more character actors. Because with a character actor you can do so many more things. The actor’s not protecting his or her image. They’re willing to play, willing to subvert their image if necessary.”
A case in point: Mortensen’s approach to Saul, a man for whom the simple act of digesting a meal seems excruciating, and who at one point in the movie begins to speak as if his throat has been blocked off — hoarse, coughing, uncomfortable — because a new organ growth is apparently impeding his speech. While Mortensen is, in Cronenberg’s words, virile, even macho, Saul is passive. Mortensen plays him as wounded end-to-end, and vulnerable, not only because he’s cutting his torso open throughout the movie. In one incredible scene, Kristen Stewart’s character proves so sexually insistent that Saul is pushed halfway around the room; when they finally kiss, the moment kicks off with Stewart sticking her fingers into otherwise imposing Mortensen’s mouth. The moment ends with deflation. He’s no good at “the old sex,” he says.
Cronenberg gets away with these inversions — using movie stars, no less — in part because his work, as visible as it is, sits just outside of the mainstream. History of Violence and Eastern Promises probably brought him closest to that Hollywood middle lane. Projects like The Fly and his Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone, were actually shepherded by independent producers (Mel Brooks and Dino de Laurentiis, respectively). And brushes with other “big” projects — Basic Instinct 2; a Robert Ludlum adaptation, for which Cronenberg wrote the script, that was meant to star Tom Cruise and Denzel Washington — famously fell through.
In a way, Cronenberg tells me, this is fate. “I’m protected by the fact that some of those things will automatically implode,” he says. “Or at least the ones that should. It’s protected me from having to make them.”
It is hard to imagine Cronenberg — a singular filmmaker whose concerns are equally one-of-a-kind, weird in a way that feels honorable — occupying any sphere but the one he’s in. It’s hard to imagine a movie like Crimes of the Future being made by anyone else. If the reception of movies like Crash were meant to impart some lesson, Cronenberg has not learned it. Crimes of the Future is the prickly, unusual evidence of that. “I don’t self-censor,” he says. “I just let myself do what I want to do. I don’t think that’s arrogance. I think it’s integrity.”