Amy Taubin talks with David Cronenberg about Crimes of the Future

David Cronenberg, Crimes of the Future, 2022, 2K video, color, sound, 108 minutes. Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and Caprice (Léa Seydoux).

DAVID CRONENBERG’S Crimes of the Future is a stunning film: visually, emotionally, viscerally, and narratively. It is both hallucinatory and intensely real—an echo chamber of Cronenbergiana colliding with a city whose three-thousand-year history can be mined but never contained. It sounds ridiculously simple, but it is Athens, as location and inspiration, that makes Crimes a new direction for Cronenberg, even as it is possibly his magnum opus. The movie, which takes its title and thankfully little else from one of the director’s early experimental films, is set in an indeterminate future that often resembles Renaissance paintings. The only people left on Earth are a small group of performance body-modification artists, their followers, and a few functionaries of the surveillance state—still dedicated to law and order while promoting chaos by playing everyone against one another.

Cronenberg wrote the screenplay just before the millennium but could not attract financing. Twenty years later, Robert Lantos, who produced the filmmaker’s Existenz (1999) and Eastern Promises (2007), suggested that now was the moment. (As I write, the “breaking news” is the leaked draft of the Supreme Court opinion that overturns Roe v. Wade, an invasion of the body by the state if ever there was one.) The only change of consequence was to switch the location from Toronto to Athens. The antecedent planetary catastrophe is never specified, but it is suggested that survivors of a defunct globalism have arrived on the Aegean coast by boat. There is no internet or phone system. In their stead, the human body—specifically, the bodies of certain artists—has become exceptionally creative, growing new organs to withstand an environment that human agency has made incompatible with human life. Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and his partner, Caprice (Léa Seydoux), are the stars of this “accelerated evolution syndrome.” Saul’s body generates strange internal clusters of cells that Caprice identifies and tattoos by piercing and cutting his torso. To keep on the right side of the law, Saul registers these growths with the National Organ Registry. The registry, whose archive is a cardboard file box, is tended by Timlin (Kristen Stewart), a straitlaced bureaucrat who cannot contain her desire for Saul, although, as he reminds her, he isn’t good at normal sex anymore. If Saul and Timlin’s interactions are a source of comedy, the yearning, potentially tragic relationship of Saul and Caprice is the life force of Crimes of the Future. This is a wildly romantic movie, and the depth of Mortensen and Seydoux’s performances, the sadness in Howard Shore’s techno-Wagnerian score, and above all the beauty of the chiaroscuro lighting in a world of impending darkness are elements out of which Cronenberg creates an elegy for past glories and a glimmer of hope that brings back an old DuPont advertising slogan: “Better living through chemistry.”

—Amy Taubin

David Cronenberg, Crimes of the Future, 2022, 2K video, color, sound, 108 minutes. Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen).

AMY TAUBIN: What a fantastic film.

DAVID CRONENBERG: Thank you. We should stop right there, quit while we’re ahead.

AT: It really knocked me out—not grossed me out, as the prepublicity suggested it might. But could we start with the very end of the film? I won’t give away the last image to readers, but I’m curious: At what point in the production did you decide to drain the color out of it? Because that is the image that will stay with me forever.

DC: Viggo [Mortensen] and I have talked a lot about Carl Dreyer’s Joan of Arc [1928]. Saul, his character, is not being burned at the stake, but at the same time, he sort of is. It wasn’t until we were editing that I felt that what I had shot had not quite gotten into his head, into his heart. And so my editor and I experimented with cropping the frame and draining the color. Of course, we had the justification that we had already established a sort of strange color-drain tone with the camera we were using throughout. But that image wasn’t in the script or in my initial shooting of the film. It came in the editing.

AT: It’s like a punctuation mark on a cathartic ending. How much color work did you do on this film in postproduction, and how involved were you in that? It is certainly the most beautiful film you’ve ever made—a dozen Last Supper paintings.

DC: I’m involved in every frame and always have been. And it’s really very close to the way we shot it. There wasn’t a lot of trickery involved in the postproduction. It was just getting things balanced properly. If you shoot anything on your phone and you decide to fool around with stuff, it’s contrast. It’s high dynamic range. It’s the warmth or the coldness of the color. But these days, as a director, you’re looking at what you’re shooting directly, unlike in the old days of film. You’re looking at a monitor that’s calibrated, and you can talk to your director of photography right there about the color balance, and you can change it on the set. This is something you could never do with film. You had to wait until long after you shot it before you could play with things like that. So what we shot on the set was very close to what we wanted.

David Cronenberg, Crimes of the Future, 2022, 2K video, color, sound, 108 minutes. Timlin (Kristen Stewart) and Caprice (Léa Seydoux).

AT: The lighting is very different from the lighting I’ve seen before in your films.

DC: It’s shooting in Athens, and in Mediterranean light, which I’ve never done before. I really embraced Athens and Greece for everything, including the streets, the graffiti, the color of the Mediterranean, and that had a lot to do with the way the film looked. When I wrote the script more than twenty years ago, I was thinking of Toronto, of course. But once we decided on Athens, I embraced it completely. And part of it is the color.

AT: I can’t imagine this film in Toronto, because what you see is the crumbling relics of the cradle of Western civilization, which is different from the relics of postmodern Toronto.

DC: Absolutely. You have three thousand years of human habitation at a grand scale, even though we didn’t shoot at the Acropolis. But you can feel it in the streets. You just feel it everywhere.

“At what point can you no longer claim to be a person or a human? This question is certainly in the film.” —David Cronenberg

AT: I read an interview you gave about your novel Consumed [2014]. You said that narrative has endured for thousands of years because it allows the pleasure of a second identity. The narrative in this film is so fragmented that the pieces barely connect into a plot, even though the minor characters seem to be plotting against one another. And yet one strongly identifies with the couple at the center—as perhaps the last human couple. Did you think about downplaying everything except the partnering of Saul and Caprice?

DC: I guess it’s the way one lives one’s life. The narrative is only apparent after the fact. It’s not there while you’re living it. So in a way, this may be my version of subjective filmmaking. That’s all I can imagine, really.

David Cronenberg, Crimes of the Future, 2022, 2K video, color, sound, 108 minutes. Caprice (Léa Seydoux) and Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen).

AT: And just as the planet is crumbling, the narrative form is crumbling. Did you consciously choose that structure?

DC: Not consciously, no. I can’t claim it.

AT: When I identify, I sometimes somatize, and I really did in this movie. The ending was a great cathartic release, like I was floating out onto the street. But about two hours later, my throat closed up, I couldn’t eat, I could barely talk. My throat is still pretty closed up.

DC: You’re blaming me for that?

AT: Yes, I am.

DC: Wow. This is a first for me. I’ve had people faint before, but this is different.

AT: Let’s talk about the body and art. In the world of this film, the only people left on the planet seem to be these competing body-transformation artists and the cults around them.

DC: At what point can you no longer claim to be a person or a human? This question is certainly in the film. And when you talked about the narrative crumbling, it’s interesting because it’s like the narrative is coming from the inside of the body now, as if the new organs that Saul’s body generates are episodes in a streaming series. Saul is trying to understand the narrative that his body is telling him. And there’s the guy with the extra ears who is performing his dance of oblivion and disappearing humanity. All the artists in the film, like any artist, are trying to do something in the face of the pressure of what it is to be human, of the human condition, and gallantly but inevitably failingly as they try to understand, interpret, and shape that narrative. Does that make any sense?

AT: Yes, thank you. Are you familiar with artists who have done similar things? Those ears reminded me of Stelarc. And one of my editors sent me a review, from Artforum’s May issue, of Carlos Motta and Tiamat Legion Medusa, whose work I didn’t know. For twenty years, Medusa has been transforming into a reptile through tattooing and body modification, so as not to live and die as a human, while at the same time transitioning from male to female. Medusa and Motta support each other in body-suspension performances.

DC: I haven’t heard of them, but of course, twenty years ago when I wrote this script, there were lots of performance artists of various kinds. Once you have it in your head that something exists, that artists were compelled to make those performance works and that there was an audience for them, that frees you to invent what you’re going to invent.

AT: The difference in the case of Saul, Viggo’s character, is that he allows these organs to grow inside him, but he’s not doing anything to his body to make that happen. The suggestion is that in making art, there is a balance between allowing and controlling.

DC: Some people, including Caprice, Léa Seydoux’s character, suggest to him that he is willing these things to happen. He himself is resistant to that interpretation, at least at the beginning. He thinks it’s happening naturally and that his will isn’t that bold. So if we talk about the narrative, it is in part that he comes to accept that his will is involved in developing these new organs.

“It’s not exactly Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, but it kind of is. It’s like, ‘Let them eat plastic.’” —DC

AT: Seydoux’s performance is very strong. So is Mortensen’s. So are all the actors’. What separates this film from so much of what are called science fiction or futurist movies is the depth that the actors bring to their characters. That’s rare. In part, that’s why I think it’s such a great film. They have an incredible depth of humanity, so that you feel that if this is the end of human beings, it’s a terrible loss.

DC: Can I quote you? I’m in Vegas, about to face three thousand exhibitors and show them the latest trailer for the film. So I have to talk to them about something. I’m not sure what yet.

AT: Tell them it’s a love story, just like Crash [1996] was a great love story. You don’t think that’s what they want to hear? You think they want to hear that people will go screaming out of the theater?

DC: Yes. I’ve been told that.

AT: Spider [2002] is also a love story. And it’s one of the only films I know that takes on the problem of depicting interiority—the working of the psyche beginning to end. Crimes of the Future is, in a way, its opposite. Even though you often have said the mind and the body are one, this film sticks to depicting the body, including its interior. What would you call Saul’s body? Is it diseased? Is it creative?

DC: I think we’re looking at a creative body, a body that is trying to adjust to new inputs and intakes. As we have discovered, even DNA is not an absolute. Epigenetics is a new sort of approach to DNA and genetics and lets you know that your body, even at the cellular and molecular levels, is constantly responding to the environment within your body, and beyond that, to the environment your body is in. I think it’s absolutely creative. And I think at the end of the movie, Saul realizes that he will allow these organs to grow. He will not remove them, and they will start to function in unknown and bizarre and creative ways. He will be able to eat the plastic candy bar. As I said, I wrote this twenty years ago and didn’t modify it. But now it’s all the rage to talk about microplastics. They’ve found them in almost everybody around the world. They’ve now found them in your bloodstream. And there are also companies literally trying to find a way to turn plastics into edible food. So as my producer said when he tried to convince me to reread this script after twenty years, it’s more relevant than ever. It’s not exactly Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, but it kind of is. It’s like, “Let them eat plastic.” Rather than try to cleanse the earth of plastics, let’s go with the plastic. All we have to do is figure out a way to be able to eat it and we’re going to be fine.

AT: Something about this reminds me of your film of Burroughs’s Naked Lunch [1991], and not just the similar visuals.

DC: One of the reasons that I wanted to do Naked Lunch was that, despite the incredible differences between me and William as human beings and our pasts and our upbringings, there was some incredible connection in terms of sensibility, visual sensibility, between us. That’s why I felt very comfortable doing Naked Lunch. Despite many fans of the book thinking I was absolutely the wrong person to do it, I thought I was pretty much the right person. And it’s really out of that part of my sensibility that I’ve made Crimes of the Future. I spent a lot of time with William, and our sense of humor, on some levels, was very similar. I think every movie I’ve made is funny. To me, that’s just natural. I mean, that kind of humor is . . . it’s innate.

AT: And do you think part of the humor in Crimes is that they’re talking about things that matter to us right now as still being crucial in this crumbling future? Like, “What will we name our police agency so it gets funding?,” which is just a hilarious line, or when one character invites another to come into the registry’s archive, and it’s one box and a bunch of crumpled papers on a shelf. By the way, I saw your film on the day that Elon Musk announced his intention to buy Twitter.

DC: Yeah, that’s part of the retro thing. There are no cars in the movie, not even Teslas. As humans, we need the structure. We need the forms. We need to fill out the forms. We don’t feel good unless we do. So we will always have an archive, even if it’s just a couple of cardboard boxes. We need that structure even if it’s failing, crumbling around us. We need it to exist, to function. And that’s where the humor comes from.

AT: I laughed throughout.

DC: You are the right audience.

AT: And I cried a lot.

DC: And that’s even better.

Crimes of the Future opens in theaters June 3.

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