Cronenberg’s ‘Crimes Of The Future’ is an example of a filmmaker’s reach exceeding his grasp

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Crimes of the Future
Written and directed by David Cronenberg
Canada, 1970

A lot of even very excitable David Cronenberg fans have never seen his 1970 film Crimes of the Future: it seems to be seen as something of a curate’s egg and dark and imaginative, of course, like everything he does, but perhaps made too long ago now, and surely overshadowed by his later work. It was his second film, after Stereo in 1969. Stereo is a similarly short feature film dealing with telepathy, sexual exploration and, like Crimes of the Future, had its commentary added later: it also starts Ronald Mlodzik wearing black and looking terrifying. But where Stereo was both creepy and austere, Crimes of the Future gives its remarkable characters more room to breathe and, in their own weird way, to play, picking their way around a modernist compound and narrated retroactively by the main character. It is fascinating viewing, and it’s always interesting to note what an acclaimed, spiky filmmaker was doing in his early career.

Most of the adult female population has been wiped out due to toxic chemicals in cosmetics. Adrian Tripod is the director of the House of Skin clinic, floating around from one odd situation to another like a ghost: with his longish hair, octagonal glasses and black coat, he looks like a nightmarish Win Butler. He is trying to find mad dermatologist Antoine Rouge who has disappeared following the catastrophe. It’s interesting what happens in Cronenberg’s vision of this new de-womanised future world: by far the worst thing is that women and girls end up prized in entirely the wrong way, and a paedophile ring holds a five year old girl captive, urging a reluctant Adrian to mate with her. Outside this, men flail around and struggle to cope, form odd bonds, secrete strange liquid from their orifices, grow multiple organs outside their bodies, paint their nails, and a disturbing esprit de corps hangs in the air.

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Crimes of the Future makes for slightly comedic viewing now, but that’s only to be expected from a low-budget film 45 years old from a master filmmaker: Cronenberg certainly hasn’t stood still. It’s difficult to imagine just how shocking the new would have been at the beginning of the 70’s, although the clues are all there on screen, events taking place in a brutalist complex and cinematically touching on the avant garde, the viewer having to piece together what might be going on. Everything is soundtracked by squeaks, bleeps and clangs, quotidian sounds which nevertheless sometimes purposefully do not sync to the events on screen. Some of this ends up being unintentionally silly watched now.

There’s still a lot to enjoy, though. Tripod’s after-the-fact voiceover, delivered in his fruity tones, give the film the feel of a public service broadcast from hell. The ideas are dark and dense but the overall tone is spacious, the gap between what we know and what we can see large, with the viewer having to join the dots between the two. The non-musical soundtrack effects are primitive to our modern ears, but sometimes it sets the scenes well – at one point it can’t stop beeping and it sounds like an out of control Geiger counter, the sounds warning us of what’s ahead. (The middle part of the film is like a skewed, parallel-universe Derek Jarman film, with music by any given thing in the outside world.) It’s just plain spooky towards the end: cinema works its dark magic, and the viewer might well feel guilty for superimposing sex where there should be none, as Adrian Tripod’s dark side truly meets the air when he’s in the same room as the kidnapped 5 year old girl.

Cronenberg himself says that his first two films are challenging viewing these days. Perhaps Crimes of the Future is an example of a filmmaker’s reach exceeding his grasp, hardly unusual or unforgivable in a young writer and director. It contains within it a lot of seeds which would later sprout into themes of his later work – bodily gruesomness, sexual relations gone totally wrong, a general sense of foreboding and shiver. The blacker than black themes of the film would be audacious wielded by and established director: it must have taken real chutzpah to bring it all to fruition as a nascent director, not yet thirty. It would be very interesting to see Cronenberg remake the film: there is enough there to flesh out for a modern audience. As it is, we have the original to chew on. If you watch it with a spark of humour, a recognition of the pop-culture and cinematic mores of the late 60’s and early 70’s, and a bit of a tolerance for toots and bleeps, you might well find that there is a lot to like.

– Juliette Jones

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