David Cronenberg has had perhaps one of the most eclectic careers of any filmmaker. His early career was defined by gruesome sci-fi like Scanners and body horror concepts like The Fly. But as he entered into the 21st century, Cronenberg became known for intense character studies of cultures and psychology, notably through his recurring collaborations with actor Viggo Mortensen in A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and A Dangerous Method. The downside to this kind of artistic-driven approach to art is the unfortunate fact that it doesn't sell as often. And if your material doesn't sell, no matter how acclaimed or appreciated as art, it's hard to get funding. Cronenberg even at one point in the early 2010's publicly considered retiring based on how difficult it was to get his films funded. While he managed to make two films with Robert Pattinson after that with Cosmopolis (2012) and Maps to the Stars (2014), for nearly the last decade he's mostly made bit appearances in various movies and shows (notably as Dr, Kovich in Star Trek: Discovery). Granted, Cronenberg fully acknowledges he has different sensibilities than others, as he revealed in a new interview with Deadline:
“My understanding of what is extreme, what is too violent, what is too sexual, really has to do with what the tone of the movie is, within the world of the movie. That’s my purview. That’s where I’m operating,” he said. “Now, once you’ve done that, you can have distributors say, ‘I cannot distribute this movie in my country,’ because it’s too this, or it’s too that. And at that point, you say, ‘Well, OK, too bad. You don’t get to see it. That’s fine.'”
However, things have changed a lot since then with various indie studios rising up to help fund unique voices like Cronenberg. As such, Cronenberg returns behind-the-camera for his newest film Crimes of the Future, produced and distributed by Neon, which sees him reteam with Mortensen along with Kristen Stewart and Léa Seydoux. And, surprise, Cronenberg has retained his unique voice with a prediction the film will not be popular with everyone. In fact, he's expecting walkouts when the film premieres at the Cannes Film Festival next week (May 17th to May 28th) before it hits theaters on June 3rd. In an interview with Deadline, he made sure that prediction was in writing:
“I do expect walkouts in Cannes, and that’s a very special thing. There are some very strong scenes. I mean, I’m sure that we will have walkouts within the first five minutes of the movie. I’m sure of that.”
This IS Cronenberg we're talking about though. He's used to it:
“People always walk out, and the seats notoriously clack as you get up, because the seats fold back and hit the back of the seat. So, you hear clack, clack, clack.”
The screenplay in fact is a work that Cronenberg wrote over 20 years ago in a far different era of audience perception.
“I mean, there are so many approaches to censorship around the world — subtle and not subtle — that you would drive yourself crazy,” Cronenberg said. “I mean, if you take all of the censorship possible to heart, you will not say a word. You can’t speak. The way that the MeToo movement can be used as a tool of censorship, for example, is a new approach, a new little arabesque on censorship, and it is used politically that way or is resisted as a censorious movement rather than a movement of some kind of liberation. So, you get all of these complexities involved.”
But given that his newest film managed to get him to get back behind-the-camera, clearly it meant something to him. In fact, the script is one that he wrote over 20 years ago. Originally titled Painkillers, he revisited the story during the COVID-19 lockdowns, Cronenberg came to find the future is even more horrifying now than it was then. Swapping the title, borrowing from his 63-minute 1970 film Crimes of the Future (though the films are unrelated), the basic synopsis indicates blood will quite literally be spilled. The film follows surgical performance artists (Viggo Mortensen and Léa Seydoux) who publicly showcase the metamorphosis of human organs in avant-garde performances. Their acts eventually capture the attention of a National Organ Registry investigator (Kristen Stewart) with eventual realization that organ transplants will lead to the next phase of human evolution.
The trailer's tagline that "surgery is the new sex" also shows just how twisted Cronenberg plans to go with such concepts of "human evolution", going as far as to compare the film to his 1996 erotic thriller Crash and how he doesn't expect Crimes of the Future to be received the same way Crash was when it premiered at Cannes:
“For one thing, there’s really no sex in the movie. I mean, there’s eroticism and there’s sensuality, but of course, part of what the movie says — and one of the characters says it very straightforwardly — is that surgery is the new sex. If you accept that, then, yeah, there’s sex in the movie, because there’s surgery! So, people might be put off by that. Whether they’ll be outraged the way they were with Crash, I somehow don’t think so. They might be revulsed to the point that they want to leave, but that’s not the same as being outraged. However, I have no idea really what’s going to happen. I guess that is the description of this movie: It’s going to either attract or repel people.”
And if the graphic moments from that trailer (one of the tamer images is a man’s eyelids being sewn shut) makes you squirm, you might want to opt out now as Cronenberg promises gruesome surgery scenes with an ending that might even keep the crowds leaving, which seems possible given the reception the film got at the Neon presentation at 2022 CinemaCon:
“Some people who have seen the film have said that they think the last 20 minutes will be very hard on people, and that there’ll be a lot of walkouts. Some guy said that he almost had a panic attack."
Still, for those willing to stick around, he expects some interesting reactions to the film, including the choices of humor:
“It will be the first time I will have seen it with an audience that knows very little about the movie, and therefore I will get laughs where I think they should be or not. Of course, there’s also the question of language and the subtitles and so on, but French viewers who have seen the film, certainly, they get the humor. A lot of the humor is derived from the dialogue, so you need to know what the dialogue is to get the humor. But, yes, like all my films, it’s funny. It’s a funny film. It’s not only funny, but it’s definitely funny.”
Cronenberg isn’t going to “neuter” the film by worrying about how it will be received on the international scale in countries like Jordan, Hungary, France, or even the U.S. And that ultimately leads to his conclusion on doing art with a distinct voice.
“Once again, you are best to ignore it, and then you take the hits, I mean, you’re out there. You are very vulnerable. You are exposing yourself as an artist. Part of what you do is to expose yourself, and you are therefore susceptible to all kinds of criticism and anger and outrage and everything else.”
Crimes of the Future may be Cronenberg's latest masterpiece or a mixed bag, but one thing is clear. There are few directors like him willing to risk his reputation with every daring film he's made in his 35-plus years directing. No doubt, his newest film will be no different.