When I heard the teaser that David Cronenberg was making a return to “body-horror” in his latest film, I, like many, knew exactly what that meant. From the hallucinogenic crawly bugs in Naked Lunch, to the literal “auto-erotic” car crash sex in Crash, to his gorey remake of The Fly, or to the “I can’t un-see it” horror props, the claw-like gynecological tools in Dead Ringers… David Cronenberg has managed to scar the minds of many movie goers over the years. But his weirdness is also a kind of gross lure. When I saw the trailer for Crimes of the Future, I felt both vaguely barfy and intrigued.
The “future” in this film is a sort of dystopian shithole. Instead of flying cars or killer robots, it looks like a low-tech neglected urban wasteland where sunken ships lie overturned and rotting in the bay, and no one seems to have bothered to slap a fresh coat of paint on any wall in 50 years. Humans have evolved into basically not giving a shit, because why should they? Apparently pain and infection has all but disappeared. Instead, people are getting off by cutting each other (deeply) in alleys just for the thrill, or doing extreme body modification for the sake of expressing something… anything.
Which brings us to performance artists Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux). Using an archaic autopsy machine (that looks like an organic pod out of HR Giger’s imagination), their performance entails her using a fleshy remote control to direct flying blades that split him open, then remove random “new” mutant organs that his body inexplicably keeps producing. Body-horror, indeed. Except very sexy… to them and to their audiences.
On the side, Saul has gotten the attention of a couple of government bureaucrats (Kristen Stewart and Don McKellen) at the National Organ Registry who are thrilled by his organ(ic?) abilities in the same way that Saul seems to be crippled by them. Saul almost chokes when he talks, and lurks in the shadows, swaddled in black. He has difficulty eating, and may actually be experiencing pain as he sleeps in a squishy pod. It’s clear that surgery is the new sex, but is Saul a new type of human, the next step in evolution that allows the human body to adapt to the wasteland that humanity has created?
Cronenberg has other themes that weave through the film that I won’t spoil here, as half the fun is trying to figure out what the heck is going on. Crimes of the Future is super-weird and quite gross–though for a movie about surgery, it’s gooey and moist but mostly bloodless. It’s fun to see Cronenberg jump right back into the shock style that made him famous–or infamous, depending on your view. And you will be shocked. But, fair warning that an important thread of plot involves a young boy killed by his mother. It made me super-squeamish, especially in light of recent violent events in the national news.
The cast is all-in for Cronenberg’s weirdness. Despite the heavy themes, the film, it must be noted, is also surprisingly funny. Mortensen and Seydoux have a great artistic and sensual chemistry (even if they are not specifically partaking in what is described as “the old sex”). Kristen Stewart steals her scenes as Timlin, the National Organ Registry assistant, who is quite literally breathlessly turned on thinking about Saul’s… err… organs. Her raspy and excited whispers beg for a lozenge, and even the other characters describe her as weird and a bit of a lurker. And of the other solid supporting characters, it sure is nice to see Don McKellar again, as Timlin’s quirky partner at the Registry that has his own idea of “inner beauty”.
In his usual weird, gross way, Cronenberg has created a compact sci-fi neo noir film with interesting, genre-pushing ideas. With its fantastic art direction, Crimes portrayal of the future is in sharp contrast to usual vision where people have become pawns of gadgets and technology. Instead this future may be more frighteningly realistic, where we are victims of our own carelessness, leaving humanity with a far-out hope that our bodies will somehow adapt to the wasteland of our own creation.