Written and directed by David Cronenberg
For those that miss the old Cronenberg, the make-you-sick-to-your-stomach Cronenberg, the make-you-look-through-your-fingers-Cronenberg, the “WTF, Cronenberg?”, Crimes of the Future is not quite the return you longed for, but the spirit’s there as he rolls back the years with a visceral make-you-wince-and-bring-you-down story full of sensory displeasure.
Viggo Mortensen stars as Saul Tenser, a performance artist living in a near-future where evolution sees some humans spontaneously grow new organs. Tenser’s art lies in reclaiming these unwanted growths by tattooing them and having them removed while awake in front of a live audience who, through similar evolutionary twists, can no longer feel pain. Surgery is the new sex, as the tagline goes, and Tester and his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux) are putting on a peep show.
The show isn’t without its controversy, but not in the way you’d expect. Spontaneously growing new bodily organs isn’t to the liking of the powers that be, who are trying to implement a national organ registry, recording and organizing these unrestrained growths that upset the order. Worse yet, some people have begun undergoing surgery to permanently alter their digestive systems to handle plastic instead of organic foods, marking, according to them, a next step in evolution.
That makes them a subversive force, and while never breaking out into open warfare, there’s a civil war going over the body and its autonomy. The body has always been Cronenberg’s favorite subject and thematic canvas, prodding, transforming, altering, or destroying it in the service of his stories that contemplate mankind’s hubris, eros, cynicism, and whatever else he can think of, but exploration of the possibilities in alteration, and what we consider acceptable to do to your body has never been in greater vogue. From the more joyful space of sexual exploration and personal expression through body art, to the much more nefarious decisions being made about trans rights and women’s ability to choose for themselves what to do with their pregnancy, the body is still a subject of hot debate and who gets to control it.
This is perhaps a small tangent, but it’s to illustrate how the body never lost relevance even as we become more digitized in the Metaverse or whatever joint venture Silicon Valley Hindenburgian project we’re being told commit to, and Cronenberg exploring it once more is not a nostalgic move, but perhaps more evidence of the world finally catching up.
The story in Crimes of the Future is a bit of a leaky tinpot with not much of a body to it. Pieces don’t fit together, characters become cut-outs, even if they’re amusing in the scenes they’re in. Kristen Stewart and Don McKellar stand out as organ bureaucrats who are seduced by the rogue virility of Tester’s art, their giddy juvenile energy compelling nuances in an otherwise bleak dystopian vision.
So what’s actually unfolding onscreen doesn’t give you much to hold onto, but if you’ve been hoping for Cronenberg to once again put you edge for the entire duration of a feature film, you’re in luck. Working with production designer Carol Spier, Cronenberg once again conjures up the grotesque, the prime example being the so-called Breakfast Chair, wherein Tester tries to eat his meals. A raised chair seemingly built out of alien bones, Tester sits almost helpless, getting jangled around by the chair that moves to allegedly optimize his digestion, an agitated attempt at taking on sustenance. He similarly sleeps in some grotesque half-cocoon, alien-like vines latched on to his skin, the raised platform shifting around like a buoy in a storm. The future of ergonomic furniture is terrible and honestly more unsettling than the live surgery scenes.
The texture and emotional landscape is vintage Cronenberg, a misanthropic continuation of his career’s preoccupation with the body, technology and the significance of their intersection. Visually stunning and unsettling, there’s enough reasons in the production design alone to warrant a watch, and for the unconvinced or newcomers, I’d suggest you first decide on how much cutting, drilling and desecration of the human body you can stomach before taking a seat.