In Review: 'Benediction,' 'Crimes of the Future'
Two veteran directors, Terence Davies and David Cronenberg, continue to find exciting new ways to revisit longtime obsessions.
Dir. Terence Davies
He thought how 'Jack', cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he'd tried
To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.
The passage above is excerpted from “The Hero,” one of the more controversial poems that Siegfried Sassoon wrote about Britain’s involvement in the first World War. Sassoon had served with distinction, winning the Military Cross for his courage under fire, but he also proved courageous in openly rejecting the country’s prolonged involvement in the war and refusing to perform any further military service. “The Hero” is about the comforting lies told to a mother about her son’s death in the trenches, and how such lies about the nobility of sacrifice perpetuate a conflict of ceaseless, graceless, useless loss. Sassoon’s fury was answered by the public’s outrage at his apostasy, as he anticipated, but he was unwilling to lead men to their deaths any longer.
Terence Davies’ beautiful new biopic Benediction covers a long stretch of Sassoon’s life, from just after his time in the war to his late adulthood, when he worked on converting to Catholicism. Though his war poetry would become revered, the arc of the film is a deepening sadness and regret, as Sassoon carries out several failed relationships as a closeted gay man before capitulating to the conventions of marriage and parenthood. The point where Davies begins the story is telling: In speaking out against the war, Sassoon expects to be court-martialed—invites it, in fact, just as he’d invited public approbation with poems like “The Hero”—but his friend Robbie Ross (Simon Russell Beale) intervenes and gets him sent to a psychiatric hospital in Scotland instead. The easier fate is not the one that Sassoon wants, Davies implies. He wants to keep telling the truth.
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Davies makes films about solitary figures, himself included. His alternately witty, nostalgic, and heartbreaking memoirs about growing up gay in Liverpool—1988’s Distant Voices, Still Lives, 1992’s The Long Day Closes, and 2008’s Of Time and the City—sync up with historical fictions like 2011’s The Deep Blue Sea or his 2016 Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion, in that loneliness is the prevailing theme, a condition that defines his characters even when they have people around them. Art tends to be the best weapon for combating loneliness, followed closely by a love of acerbic language, but Davies and his characters are often left disappointed by a world that isn’t worthy of them. And the beauty they find (and create) can feel like a cold comfort.
Sassoon puts up a fight, however. Davies’ script finds Sassoon, played by the dashing Jack Lowden, reluctantly accepting getting squirreled away in a psychiatric hospital, but using his time to mentor another poet, Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson). He remains unbowed in his sessions with the head counselor, who quietly discloses his own proclivity toward “the love that dare not speak its name.” Owen’s subsequent release to the front lines, followed by his death shortly afterwards, seems to break something in Sassoon, whose life is privileged but thoroughly unmoored. His looks and charm lead to joyless relationships with the socialite Stephen Tennant (Calum Lynch) and vain musical-theater entertainer Ivor Novello (Jimmy Irvine). But he eventually settles down with a woman, Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips), whose decency doesn’t ease the obvious pain of this compromise.
Peter Capaldi plays the older Sassoon, and fans of The Thick of It and In the Loop would be mostly correct in anticipating Sassoon’s mood at this point in his life, when bitter recriminations drip out of his mouth like sulfuric acid. But Davies is always fully alive to Sassoon’s pain and disappointment, his artistic genius, and the acute sense of not belonging in a country he understood so uniquely. Sassoon lived to be 80, only a few years older than Davies is now, and the director seems attuned to what it’s like to be a creative person over so many decades, as well as a gay man in a culture that’s slow to change.
Though it’s rarely a good idea for a biopic to cover so much terrain, Benediction collapses time with associative flashbacks and flash-forwards, and Davies’ gift for dramatic tableaux has the effect of crystalizing the scenes in Sassoon’s life that Davies wants to emphasize. There’s not much connective tissue between periods, either, which spares us the “and-then-this-happened” qualities of more conventional, Wiki-fied portraiture. Sassoon will be remembered as the great British poet of World War I, but the young soldier who wrote those poems is not the man featured in this film. He’s the one with the anticlimax in front of him.
Crimes of the Future
Dir. David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg has had a hand in writing many of the films he’s directed, but only three of his screenplays in the past 40 years are not adapted from another source: 1983’s Videodrome, 1999’s eXistTenz, and his seductive new science-fiction puzzler, Crimes of the Future. There’s something bracingly pure about Cronenberg’s original work: Because he doesn’t have to bend to accommodate another author’s sensibility, he’s free to let his obsessions run wild, continuing his unmistakable vision of a future where bodies forge painful alliances with material objects and evolve at the quickened pace of technology. His work may not be prophetic in the most literal sense, but a film like Crimes of the Future feels attuned to an era of accelerated change and our confused, desperate, and sometimes touching efforts to adapt.
We see the first crime of the future during a prologue. A little boy is suffocated to death by his mother, who considers him a monster for ravenously gobbling up a plastic bathroom garbage can as if it were a funnel cake at the fair. The incident hints at Cronenberg’s intent: If synthetics like plastic are going to be part of our environment, for sustainability reasons we’re going to have to eat them. Though Cronenberg doesn’t establish a specific time and place, much less detail the forces that have shaped this setting, it seems safe to say that climate change has been a factor in reducing the world to an underpopulated, eerie noir-ville where the shores are lined with rusted-out boats.
The good news for humanity is that pain and disease have been largely eradicated, with the notable exception of “Accelerated Evolution Syndrome,” which is mutating the race. One AES sufferer is Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), whose body keeps manufacturing new organs that he and his wife, Caprice (Léa Seydoux), remove through home surgeries they’ve turned into erotic underground performance art. (That one sentence of plot description alone evokes the mutated organs of Dead Ringers, the organic tools of eXistenZ, and the celebrity death demonstrations in Crash.) Saul’s new parts have to be submitted to an organization called the National Organ Registry, led by Wippet (Don McKellar) and his peculiar assistant Timlin (Kirsten Stewart), who’s unmistakably allured by Saul and Caprice’s stage shows.
Cronenberg eventually brings the boy from the prologue back into the story, as the child’s father (Scott Speedman) requests the use of their “autopsy machine,” a mechanized skeleton-like chamber that’s part of their organ removal act. This shadowy intrigue drives the action forward, but like many noirs, Crimes of the Future is less interested in sorting through its dense plot than using it as a means to explore the world around it. On that front, Cronenberg delivers one strange or gross or beautiful image after another: An organic Orchidbed that hangs from the ceiling and requires constant software updates to sooth the pain centers in Saul’s body; the erotic theater of Saul and Caprice operating the autopsy machine, giving legitimacy to the phrase “surgery is the new sex”; the harvesting of new organs looking like root vegetables pulled from the soil.
As with Cronenberg’s other original work, Crimes of the Future has a tendency to place itself on the operating slab and ask the audience to extract the many themes that are growing out of its body. But it’s a credit to Cronenberg that he never makes it easy to unpack his films, however much they beg for interpretation. He’s made a film about climate change, evolution, technology, artistic expression, and the peculiarities of love and erotism, but his images feel as instinctual as they are formidably intellectual. The mind and body speak in an obscure language that he has the courtesy to let us try to translate.
Very interesting. I've been skipping over other reviews of 'Benediction', in part because they were largely negative, but also because I had no idea what it was about and it had virtually no hype leading up to it. Now because of Scott's review, I'm actively interested in seeing it. 'Crimes of the Future' is Cronenberg, which = "no brainer" in my view. LOVED Crash, Dead Ringers, The Fly, etc.
Just left a screening of Crimes of the Future and really want to sit down with other people who’ve seen it to process it all. It is entirely absorbing and sometimes difficult to watch, but not as difficult to watch as I would have imagined if I’d seen advance descriptions of some of those scenes. I think that’s because Cronenberg’s world aesthetic sense here is so much in sync with his ideas and his future world that, in context, his imagery is less grotesque than simply ... appropriate. I don’t think I need to entirely understand this mindset to believe in its validity.