In David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future, in which an artist played by Viggo Mortensen has organs and tumors plucked from his body in performance art excavations, Kristen Stewart plays a timid bureaucrat swiftly turned passionate devotee.
In Cronenberg’s film, a Cannes Film Festival entry opening June 3 in theaters, Stewart’s character, breathlessly excited by what she’s witnessed, transforms into a fan and, maybe, an artist.
It’s a literally gut-wrenching film thick with metaphorical meaning about art making that Stewart deeply connects with. It’s appropriate, too, that the film again brought Stewart to Cannes, a prime platform for Stewart’s own transformations for the last decade.
“There is a certain commitment to what feels like radical art here that is so unabashed and audacious and so sort of arrogant in a beautiful way,” Stewart says on a rooftop terrace overlooking Cannes’ Croisette. “Nobody has to defer and say, ‘Well, I guess what we do isn’t saving lives.’ It’s like: ‘Yes it is! Art actually saves lives.’”
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In an interview, Stewart reflected on how the themes of Crimes of the Future encapsulate and dovetail with her own artistic journey.
The attitude about “radical” film that you’re describing certainly applies to Crimes of the Future, but Cronenberg has had difficult getting funding for films. Do you ever feel frustrated by how dissimilar Hollywood is to Cannes?
Yeah, it’s an industry. It’s driven by how much money you’re making. We call it the movie business over in Los Angeles. I’m into that because I want everyone to see the stuff that we do, but it’s perspective. If you don’t focus on it, it doesn’t touch you. But, oh, I resent it so deeply. (Laughs)
Yeah, but I also recognize that it’s expansive. That’s a cool thing. There’s no way around it in a capitalist society. It’s nice to actually own how obsessed you are with something instead of having to pretend it’s not that big of a deal. And feeling like every interview you’re doing is under the guise of a conversation but what you’re doing is plugging the date of the release and the studio is listening to every word you say, and they’re saying, “Don’t say that word. That’s triggering.” It’s like, what?
Did you see your character in Crimes of the Future as like a fan? How did you connect with her?
One of the things that the movie asks is who’s allowed to deem art “art” or not? What we’re doing now could be art to someone. But there are certain people that become so frenzied around human beings that are compelled to externalize their inner life, and there’s a jealousy thing that drives people crazy. It’s a beautiful thing to excavate yourself and show it to the world. Not everyone does it and not everyone is capable of it. But it’s definitely something that humans lean toward. It was fun to play someone who is so self-suppressed and locked up and wants to do a good job. She believes in the myth. She believes in the government. She believes in all of these things that we all make up. (Stewart waves her arms around at everything around.) We made all this up! When she sees someone do something different, her heart starts beating out of her chest. Then there’s this desire to have a vicarious experience. I thought it was cool playing someone who has a full awakening.
Was there some version of what happens to her that once occurred for you?
I used to be like, “Acting, you’re just a really good liar.” I think I turned 13 and realized I was so moved by certain experiences and so drawn to certain people. I would leave with memories that took place within scenes and I felt like they were my own. They were so personal. I didn’t really know where I stopped and where all of this started. I was like, “Oh, I’m an artist.” Then I started to become the opposite. I was always really embarrassed. I’d say if you can walk and talk, you can act. I do still think that. It’s just a willingness to go there. But I absolutely had a moment. It was a like a religious experience. You take the theology out of that word and it’s pretty interchangeable with faith. I started to believe. And it really, really changed my life.
The central metaphor of the movie is about pulling art out of yourself, sometimes painfully, often beautifully, even if it’s grotesque. Do you identify with that idea?
Definitely. In retrospect, I did not understand that Saul Tenser (Mortensen) is David. I think David’s going to outlast us all and make a lot more movies. But there’s a sort of last gasp thing that an artist can feel even at 15 years old. Is this the last thing I’m going to be able to do? Can I still make something? Is something going to come out? When Viggo is hacking up these organs, I’m like, “David, you’re just never going to be able to stop.” Obviously you give yourself, you feel like you’re excavating these chunks to present as offering. But you get so much in return. It’s so reciprocal.
You don’t ever feel like you’re ever given too much of yourself?
No, pain is the most cathartic pleasure. This thing about having to slice into each other to feel each other — I would really go to any extent. In the moments that I’ve had the most wrought moments in my person life, any moments I’ve been in full tumult, I look back on them with shining eyes. I’m like: “Wow, I was on real body drugs.” There is a euphoria in pain, so it’s nice to share it. It’s really horrible to sit with pain by yourself.
At the festival press conference, Cronenberg spoke about the possible overturning of abortion rights for women as “the real body horror.” Do you agree?
We think about body in relation to legislation almost exclusively to abortion and gender. Pretty much absolutely every thing is about physicality. It’s hard to put words to this because it’s probably not the right format to start screaming right here, on this balcony. Maybe this is totally naïve and so America, I just really didn’t think the ball would come crashing down the hill so violently and so quickly. Everything they pushed forward is being disassembled. The acceleration is so overwhelming it’s hard to fathom. It’s (expletive) and terrifying and scary. If I had grown up somewhere else, maybe I’d feel differently. I’m not trying to tell anyone else that they’re wrong. All of this is so asinine and so unnecessary.
You’re preparing to direct your first feature film. How’s it going?
I’ve been working on this project for five years. I didn’t want to jump the gun. It didn’t want to be made yet. It’s based on a memoir and the beauty of the memoir is that it feels like true memory in a way that has an emotional intelligence and chronology — it’s called “Chronology of Water.” It is really about a wash of memories that aren’t seemingly connected by anything lucid but always something emotional. It’s really hard to do that visually. I also didn’t want to apply a structure that was more formal. It wouldn’t be the same story. It’s the most physical text I’ve ever read. The way she talks about having a body, I need to see that in a movie. It’s like (Celine Sciamma’s) Water Lilies and (Lynne Ramsay’s) Morvern Callar. My favorite stuff is always about how artists find their voices, because it kind of screams at you to find yours. Even if you don’t consider yourself an artist, you write your own story.