David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Past Point Towards His Future

Movies Features David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Past Point Towards His Future

David Cronenberg’s first feature, Stereo, released in 1969, is not an easy film to sit through. Despite its scant 63-minute runtime, it is experimental and entirely wordless, all plot conveyed through monotone narration. This commentary espouses convoluted pseudo-scientific jargon surrounding the telepathic abilities of a group of volunteers who aim to hone their powers through polymorphous sex. The wordlessness is due to the noisy, Arriflex 2C 35mm camera that Cronenberg used, and what could now be considered the very typically Cronenbergian preoccupations of the story are less of the point. Instead, Cronenberg wanted to emphasize the architectural surroundings of his subjects compared to the nonsensical narrative, with the now-familiar themes of mind v. body. v. an increasingly technologized world spoken out loud. Stereo was shot at the Andrews building of Scarborough College at the University of Toronto, where a young Cronenberg and his actor friends attended school. A newly erected building, with the emptiness of a structure entirely absent of life dwarfing the few people in the film, added to Cronenberg’s thesis on the relationship between humans and technology. In 2014, Cronenberg said “You have to think of architecture as an expression of technology.”

There has always been a perverse symbiosis between sexuality and technology in Cronenberg’s films, and this unique approach to sexuality—displayed in both Stereo and his 1970 follow-up, Crimes of the Future—caught the attention of Canadian film studio Cinépix Film Properties. Cinépix would go on to back his next two features, the ones that pushed the director into the mainstream: Shivers and Rabid. Crimes of the Future shares the same name as the director’s newest film, set to premiere on June 3. His early experimental works form a palpable pipeline which links the provocative horror director’s origins to his late career, leading all the way to a new interpretation (though not a remake) of Crimes of the Future.

Like Stereo, the original Crimes of the Future was shot silent on the Arriflex (this time in color), had narrative commentary added afterwards and featured Cronenberg collaborator and friend Ronald Mlodzik (along with a handful of other players from Stereo) similarly oppressed by modern architecture. In a dystopian future, Adrian Tripod (Mlodzik) searches for his missing mentor, the unseen and insane dermatologist Antoine Rouge, who disappeared in the aftermath of a cosmetic-induced plague that wiped out all sexually mature women on the planet. Tripod then flits between groups of men struggling to adjust to this post-feminine world, ultimately finding a contingent of pedophiles who aim to force a young girl through puberty in order to impregnate her.

The challenging subject matter attributed to both films is more interesting in synopsis than in practice; on screen, both are very formal, narratively and performatively controlled, and, well, a bit dry. Interestingly, there is one overt aspect of Crimes of the Future (1970) that connects it to Crimes of the Future (2022), beyond the title: A brief scene in the former, in which a character carries around liquid-filled jars containing functionless organs that his body has begun to grow itself. A man’s way of giving birth in the absence of women. When a new organ is removed, another replaces it. In Crimes of the Future (2022), a performance artist couple (Viggo Mortensen and Lea Seydoux) travels the world showcasing the growth and removal of live organs in front of paying audiences. In both films, the characters are able to grow these new organs due to disease, and they inhabit a world ravaged by widespread catastrophe—in the new film, it’s climate change.

After watching the original Crimes of the Future, it becomes immediately clear why Cronenberg might have wanted to repurpose the memorable title 50 years later, when he would have the artistic prowess and resources to produce the meaningful art he attempted to convey without much of either. (In a Criterion interview, Cronenberg stresses that he didn’t really know how to make films before Shivers, and that the production on that film was essentially his film school.) Though far less sophisticated and more stylistically restrained than what his work would evolve into, both Stereo and Crimes of the Future (1970) plant seeds for Cronenberg’s thematic preoccupations in his heyday during the ‘80s and ‘90s: The human body and those who seek to control it. This is evident with films such as The Brood, in which a woman manifests an external womb while under psychotherapy, or Dead Ringers, in which one twin gynecologist becomes obsessed with operating on women with abnormal genitalia. But they also portend the late style of his subdued, dramatic work in the ‘00s onward, fixated on what the body represents in an entirely different (yet still distinctly Cronenbergian) method.

In Cronenberg’s later work, more emphasis is placed on unseen changes in the body, as with his first three films with Mortensen and 2014’s Maps to the Stars (I have not yet seen 2012’s Cosmopolis). In these works, grotesqueries simmer just below the surface: A murderous past and a new identity, sex trafficked women, sexual repression. In Maps to the Stars, incest, abuse, mental illness and addiction. These internal conflicts manifest in less gratuitous forms than a ravenous armpit mouth or a vaginal VCR chest cavity, yet manage to take a far more profound toll on their subjects and those around them. The mind vs. body war rages on, as we fear both ourselves and what we have the potential to become. There is less than you might think separating the experimental telepaths seeking new dangerous states of consciousness, who are led to suicide in Stereo, from Agatha Weiss’ trauma-induced, psychotic pyromania in Maps to the Stars.

Consequently, the apparent absence of Cronenberg from the body horror genre is less of a return to perceived form with neo-Crimes of the Future than it is something of a hat trick. The director never really left. Cronenberg seems to have circled back to a structure seen in his first two amateur features that echoed in his later work, at least when you stay on the surface. While absent an overbearing narrator, Cronenberg’s later films (even more apparent after Eastern Promises) are low on action and dialogue-driven—a less charitable read would be that they entail “people talking in rooms.” A friend who saw the new Crimes of the Future at Cannes said that this remains, even as the director seemingly makes his grand return to the genre he defined his career with.

But the brilliance of Cronenberg’s work is that he never truly abandoned the body horror genre when he moved into directing dramas that take place in a reality at least similar to ours. The key to Cronenberg is understanding that the themes he has explored throughout his decades-long career in genre work can be transferable across genres. Perhaps the apex of Cronenberg’s ability to breach these genre lines was achieved with 1996’s Crash, in which real-world body modifications are achieved through fetishistic desire as a gateway to a higher state of being. Stereo and Crimes of the Future demonstrate that fear, both of mortality and a loss of autonomy, and the need to assert control over the changes in our body is distinct to the effectiveness of body horror—but they can be seamlessly applied to the more “understated” work. Julianne Moore’s Maps to the Stars character wages internal war against her aging body and the oppressive memory of her abusive, world-famous mother. It is easy to say that reality is just as horrific as a horror film, and sure, this is, in part, true. But, as Cronenberg has demonstrated from the start and continues to prove, sometimes the scariest thing is what tears us apart from the inside—like a new organ where one doesn’t belong.

Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.

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