We have the David Cronenberg of old back in Crimes of the Future. The Canadian maestro of mutilated flesh made his name with body horror films in the 1970s and ’80s, then spent this century moving away from that. Much as I’ve admired his relatively decorous dramas such as A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, I have missed the gross-out filmmaker who conjured up such vivid and gory nightmares in his younger days. He’s back now, and provocative as ever.
The movie shares a title with a 1970 feature by Cronenberg, though he maintains that the title is the only point in common. Cronenberg standby Viggo Mortensen portrays Saul Tenser, a man living in a Greek seaside town in a future when human evolution has clearly been sniffing glue. Saul’s body grows so many tumors that he has them removed by a surgeon named Caprice (Léa Seydoux) in a series of public performances. He has company, because so many other people are growing their own extra organs and having surgery done on them in public that it has become its own genre of theater. Saul is being stalked by a man named Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman), who wants Saul and Caprice to perform an autopsy on his 8-year-old son, as the boy manifested some strange abilities before being murdered by his mother. Lang challenges Saul’s reservations: “Are you afraid to have some actual emotion in your show?” Saul walks away saying, “I’m afraid of everything.”
On one hand, the movie satirizes the art world in a new way by having Saul acclaimed as a great artist for displaying his removed organs. On the other hand, the arguments that he has with Lang and a government minister (Welket Bungué) about whether we have the right to alter our own bodies are reminiscent of the ones swirling around the trans community. And on an entirely appropriate third hand, Lang suggests that humans’ damage to the environment is being reflected in people’s bodies.
Maybe this parable doesn’t hang together as neatly as The Fly, but Cronenberg movies have long been about generating images of strange and repulsive power, and this one has a dancer performing a dance piece while nearly naked, revealing the more than 20 ears that he has grown all over his body. (One observer sniffs that he isn’t legit because most of the ears aren’t functional.) Saul’s bed looks like a giant cockroach suspended upside-down from the ceiling, and it moves on its own in an attempt to fix Saul’s chronic back pain.
The mutations on display come with a good dose of paranoia, as Saul’s work exists in a legal gray area, and he’s working as an informant for that minister to keep out of jail. He’s surrounded by other spies: A registration clerk (Kristen Stewart) is pursuing an agenda well beyond her job description, and the technicians (Nadia Litz and Tanaya Beatty) who work on Caprice’s surgery bay seem to be carrying out contract killings on the side. Saul wanders the streets at night in a black robe and mask, wheezing and coughing the whole while. The paranoid fantasy lends itself to ferociously mannered performances, as Mortensen speaks hoarsely and contorts his body, Don McKellar is sad and effeminate as the government registrar who wants Saul to do his bidding, and Stewart adopts a bizarre, gulping delivery as a fangirl who creeps out everyone she meets and throws herself at Saul. Does she want to have sex with him or have him operate on her? (Or both? As one scene here makes clear, you can do both at the same time.)
Crimes of the Future does end on a more hopeful note than the operatic tragedy of The Fly, the closed loop of Dead Ringers, or the apocalyptic vision of Videodrome, suggesting that human evolution might allow the species to survive in this blighted world. However, like Cronenberg’s best work, it’s best appreciated as its own ineffable cinematic experience with odd bits that wash over you. Maybe some of his acolytes — Julia Ducournau comes to mind — treat this territory more incisively, but Cronenberg is still serving up distinctive fare at the multiplexes. For a filmmaker who turns 80 next year, that’s worth giving three thumbs up.
Crimes of the Future
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux, and Kristen Stewart. Written and directed by David Cronenberg. Rated R.