David Cronenberg: Crimes of the Future (1970)


Crimes of the Future is essentially Stereo: Part II. Like its predecessor, it is filmed without sound on a low budget against the backdrop of modernist buildings in Toronto. It too is an art-film that pushes esoteric themes without delivering much in the way of conventional drama or entertainment. It is satirical, but also dry as a doctor’s lecture—so dry as to extinguish much of the obvious humour present in its storytelling. It is the second of David Cronenberg’s introductory experiments in narrative filmmaking, another early stage in the germination of a brilliant, deviant artistic mind.

Crimes of the Future is set in a fictional 1997 where women have largely died off due to a disease known as “Rouge’s Malady;” the disease is spread through the use of cosmetic products. The central figure and narrator is Adrian Tripod (Ron Mldozik), who works at the House of Skin, a residential clinic meant for people convalescing from Rouge’s Malady. The man who pioneered the clinic and discovered the malady, Antoine Rouge, has disappeared and the film chronicles Adrian’s search for him through this bizarre, womanless world.

As mentioned, Crimes of the Future bears a lot of similarities in tone and form to Stereo. However, it is also shows an artistic progression from that film, even though it was made no more than a year later. For instance, Crimes of the Future is filmed in colour and has more of a developed plot than Stereo, with Adrian Tripod progressing through various institutions, including the House of Skin, the Institute of Neo-Venereal Disease, and Metaphysical Import-Export, in search of Rouge and some sort of answer to society’s disintegration.

Not to say Crimes of the Future is a riveting thriller like many of Cronenberg’s subsequent films. Again, those viewers looking for straightforward entertainment will be hopelessly bored. But it does signal a small step towards more mainstream forms of storytelling. In Cronenberg on Cronenberg, Cronenberg mentions that “Ivan Reitman once told me it could have been a great commercial success if I’d done the movie straight.” There’s a kernel of truth here, as the film operates within a world that looks similar to the sort found in popular Hollywood dystopias like Gattaca or Children of Men. As well, the filmmaking is more accessible.

For one, its narration is limited to one figure: Adrian Tripod, who conveys context on the events of this future world and reflects on the various aesthetic or emotional aspects of these events. The narration here is not solely the ironic statements and pseudo-scientific babble found in Stereo. In fact, at moments in the film, we get statements that are actually portentous and relevant. There is also the occasional sound effect here. While Cronenberg once again filmed without audio so as to avoid the loud noise created by the ArriFlex camera, he does often use sound effects that match the scene, whether ambient street noise during scenes outdoors or mechanical noises meant to mimic vents or other machinery. This all makes Crimes of the Future much-less sterile than Stereo. It might be experimental filmmaking, but the story is not depicting a closed-off experiment.

The formal filmmaking is also more expansive and ambitious than in his previous work. An early dolly tracking shot and push in on Adrian as he enters the House of Skin showcases Cronenberg’s mounting confidence as if it were a bold proclamation of pride in his style. Later shots move beyond the realm of promising formal command to stunning compositions in their own right. One scene midway through cleverly hides the presence of a third figure watching over the scene until the final shot, when a cut to a striking wide shot of a hallway reveals the balcony overhead. Another shot down a long hallway features vertical strips of light transforming the corridor into a gauntlet of prison bars. Cronenberg often uses the camera to create the impression that the characters are imprisoned or under surveillance. He’ll film through gates or windows, or hide the camera behind corners like a Peeping Tom. Of course, this approach doesn’t stray from the facts of what Cronenberg is depicting; in early scenes, we do see an effeminate patient being rounded up by attendants after failed escape attempts, and later scenes involving a captive girl literalize the idea that these characters are taking prisoners in a quest to reintroduce femaleness into the world.

However much the filmmaking and mode of storytelling of Crimes of the Future are more accessible, the actions depicted within the film are likely more distancing than in Stereo. Without the pretext of an experiment in deviant sexual behaviour (like in Stereo), the perversion on screen in Crimes of the Future veers into the truly distasteful at moments. A striking example is when Adrian finds himself aligned with a group of heterosexual pedophiles and pressured into impregnating a small girl (the only female in the film) who has undergone premature puberty. That he does not follow through with the deed is a great relief to the viewer, but it doesn’t entirely alleviate the discomfort of the scene’s inclusion at all.

Of course, this sequence with the girl highlights the film’s interest in notions of maleness and femaleness. As the world is mostly devoid of women due to Rouge’s Malady, the men in Crimes of the Future begin to display typically-female traits. They wear red lipstick, go barefoot, and are feminized through their facial features or hair styles. Midway through the film, Adrian engages in an underground trade of women’s underwear and socks, as if anything directly connected to women has become a hot commodity. Of course, this commodification of women culminates in the acquisition of the small girl, and carries through the implications of a women’s disease that is transferred through cosmetics.

Instead of trying to depict a world where the absence of women has seen the eradication of femaleness, Crimes of the Future shows a world where men have begun to supply that femaleness themselves. Cronenberg explains: “In Crimes of the Future I talk about a world in which there are no women. Men have to absorb the femaleness that is gone from the planet. It can’t just cease to exist because women aren’t around. It starts to bring out their own femaleness more, because that duality and balance is necessary.” This plays into Cronenberg’s ongoing obsession in his work in how large external influences (whether radio signals in Videodrome or sexual obsessions in Crash) can physically change the human body, signalling the link between pathology and physiology.

In Crimes of the Future, the men who are afflicted with Rouge’s Malady bear out its effects by creating “puzzling organs,” which have no seeming function but allow the men to become women-of-sort, reproducing small extensions of themselves that are immediately regrown when surgically removed. You can even take the connection further, seeing the organs as figurative representations of the men themselves, who have become without function in the absence of women; if they cannot supply the seed of humanity to women who will reproduce, they no longer serve any biological function.

These organs also point forward to the sorts of body horror that would come to define Cronenberg’s career as a director. For Cronenberg, there has always been a sensual and creative aspect to these deformities. Physical change is not just degeneration, but also creation. Here, Adrian calls the disease “creative cancer,” while also musing that “the body is a galaxy and these creations are solar systems.” The abnormalities are also always sensual. In later films, Cronenberg would explicitly make the deformities and monstrous growths of his character resemble sex organs, while here he suffices in having Adrian note the sensuality of the disease and have characters often taste the blood and puss that emanates from people’s wounds.

All of this begins to sound much more in line with the Cronenberg that viewers are more familiar with, the pioneer of body horror and the deviant artist who pushes the boundaries of sex and perversity on screen. Crimes of the Future is a clear stepping-stone towards the sexual body horror of Shivers, where Cronenberg would jettison the art-film veneer and fully embrace the perversity of his ideas in the genre most befitting them: horror. However, it’s not quite free from the pretentious musings and formal experiments of a young, ambitious filmmaker learning the ropes. It’s another formative growth and experiment for the mad scientist filmmaker.

5 out of 10

Crimes of the Future (1970, Canada)

Written and directed by David Cronenberg; starring Ron Mlodzik, Jon Lidolt, Tania Zolty, Jack Messinger, Paul Mulholland, William Haslam, William Poolman.