David Cronenberg’s second crack at an almost-feature-length film, Crimes of the Future, plays like a revisitation of some of the themes and techniques that made his previous effort, Stereo, feel like a student project. Some of the hallmarks of his maturing style come into focus at fleeting moments, separated by long stretches of baffling exposition and non sequiturs that make the 63-minute runtime feel like twice that. And yet the seeds of Cronenbergian high-concept sci-fi and psychosexual horror are here, just poking their heads above the surface of what feels like a challenging and sometimes off-putting art house experiment.

As with Stereo, technical and budget limitations forced Cronenberg to film without sound, which creates a sense of disconnection from the onscreen action. This is counteracted by the intimacy of the voiceover narration providing the thread of a plot in a delicately spoken monologue, which is occasionally swapped out for jarring and mesmerizing sound effects: beeping machines, buzzing insects, trickling water, braying claxons. The sound design sometimes suggests the ambient noise and sometimes seems to reflect the main character’s mental state as he searches for answers to a bizarre mystery.

Therein lies the thin veil of plot. Adrian Tripod (Ronald Mlodzik) is a metaphysical scientist with an experimental dermatology clinic known as the House of Skin. Through scraps of voiceover, he reveals that women have mostly disappeared from the world, killed off by a condition known as Rouge’s Malady, brought on by the use of cosmetics. In this womanless world, Tripod interacts with his interns and an expanding cast of patients and other scientists at organizations such as the Institute of Neo-Venereal Disease and Metaphysical Import-Export. There is a strand of satirical humor buried within the story, but the dry style and Tripod’s monotone narration nearly overwhelm it.

What stands out is Cronenberg’s emerging confidence as a visual stylist. Sharp angles draw the eye and keep the viewer alert even in the absence of dramatic tension. Arresting shots generate suspense through deep focus, drawing attention to figures appearing ominously in the background. While the brutalist architecture of the University of Toronto campus makes for a mostly monochrome palette, splashes of vibrant blues and reds pop from the screen like neon glimpsed through drizzle. Cronenberg was already fine-tuning his idiosyncratic grammar of cinema even as he appeared to eschew some of the basics, such as sound design and pacing.

Perhaps most fascinating in Crimes of the Future are the sexual and gender dynamics, prefiguring themes he would return to again and again. In a world without women, the male characters struggle to bring some sense of balance to their lives by adopting feminine characteristics. They fill the void of femaleness in literal ways, from painting their nails and wearing lipstick to caressing one another’s bodies and faces as if seeking out nurturing instincts within themselves. Tripod trades panties and stockings with his patients and colleagues, who carefully finger the delicate fabrics as if beholding lost artifacts. One character spontaneously grows external organs on his body as if attempting to imitate the miracle of birth. Here is another thematic trove that Cronenberg would continue to explore in his later films, where sexual ambiguity and body dysmorphia verge into horror. In Crimes of the Future, the story eventually leads to an uncomfortable and repellent place, with suggestions of pedophilia that thankfully remain unrealized on camera. Cronenberg seemed to be testing the limits of how much he could get away with and still hold on to an audience. It was a balancing act that would define a long and varied career, and he only got better at it with time.

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