By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux and Scott Speedman
Written and directed by David Cronenberg
Sometimes you don’t know how much you’ve missed someone until you see them again after a long time apart, and so it is with David Cronenberg and CRIMES OF THE FUTURE. I had the same reaction watching the filmmaker’s return to body horror that I did while viewing George A. Romero’s LAND OF THE DEAD back in 2005: After years of imitations and homages, you still know–and get a true thrill from–the real thing when you see it. Cronenberg hasn’t been down this road since eXistenZ 23 years ago, and it’s exciting to see his visceral/thematic concerns in full flower again.
Indeed, those concerns supersede narrative ones in CRIMES OF THE FUTURE; this is perhaps the least plot-driven of his genre features, in the sense that there isn’t an urgent narrative engine driving the story. It’s a more situational kind of movie, which by no means, in this case, makes it less engrossing. It is also, despite the title, a less “futuristic” film than eXistenZ, at least in terms of the trappings we expect. The visually fascinating milieu (syn) conjured up by Cronenberg’s longtime production designer Carol Spier looks less futuristic than alternative, and the Greek locations bestow an otherworldly quality on the proceedings–which are unusual enough already.
CRIMES OF THE FUTURE is unrelated in subject matter to Cronenberg’s 1970 film of the same title–his first close-to-feature-length work–in which the world’s male population deals with the loss of sexually mature women. In the world of this film, eroticism, if not propagation, has a new focus, or as Timlin (Kristen Stewart), who works for the National Organ Registry, succinctly puts it, “Surgery is the new sex.” Indeed it is, and it’s a spectator sport too, as practiced by performance artist Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux). Their act consists of Saul lying on an “autopsy bed” as Caprice, using what looks like a cross between an Xbox controller and one of those fleshy typewriters from Cronenberg’s NAKED LUNCH, manipulates scalpels and other tools to delve into Saul’s body and remove unwanted new organs. (He’s conscious for the whole thing, since pain, we’re told, no longer exists in the human race.)
These “shows” are observed by small audiences in the hushed manner of those witnessing an especially dramatic opera. (CRIMES makes for an interesting, coincidental companion piece to Peter Strickland’s FLUX GOURMET, also out this month, which showcases a similar obsessiveness over food preparation.) You can read all kinds of metaphors into these setpieces, which play like natural extensions of modern pop-cultural obsessions. These days, dissecting the icky details of people’s lives serves as entertainment (see, for handy example, the just-concluded Johnny Depp/Amber Heard trial); watching someone actually get dissected could be seen as the next logical step. There are those in CRIMES’ world who are dubious about it, though, like Detective Cope (Welket Bungué), who poses the question, “How can a tumorous growth be considered art?”
In Cronenberg’s hands, it can be. CRIMES OF THE FUTURE is a hypnotic trip into a fully imagined environment that, for all its avant-garde qualities, touches relatable nerves. The filmmaker once said, “The body is the center of horror…the awareness of the body, the awareness of death, is the wellspring of horror,” and so it very much is here. Saul is a literally sick man who needs to sleep in a fleshy/mechanical bed, an extreme and potent extension of the ways so many of us deal with various ailments. For him, physical necessity is the mother of creative invention; but this being a Cronenberg film, there’s also a bureaucracy involved, in this case the aforementioned National Organ Registry, which in this district is run out of a shabby little office by the enthusiastic Wippet (Don McKellar, stealing scenes) and Timlin. Stewart plays amusingly against type in the latter role, perpetually high-strung and also aroused when she witnesses Saul being literally opened up.
Mortensen and Seydoux invest their eccentric roles with a depth of feeling that gives CRIMES’ many bizarre and grisly sights a grounding in humanity. Cronenberg’s typically unflinching approach means that, typically, his film won’t be for everyone; as in the 1970 version, a child figures crucially into the storyline, in different ways that won’t be revealed here. As the boy’s father, Scott Speedman brings a concern for his son–amidst less tenable motivations–that also adds relatable emotion to the film. Bungué is a less familiar face in the ensemble, but the inquisitive intelligence he brings to Cope makes it clear he’s going places.
CRIMES has also been impeccably crafted, with the existing settings and Spier’s inspired creations captured with great mood by DP Douglas Koch, a newcomer to the Cronenberg fold. The filmmaker’s longtime composer Howard Shore receives screen credit ahead of most of the producers, and that’s appropriate; once again, his ominous music is an indelible component. So are the squishy, tactile prosthetics created by Black Spot FX and Alahouzos Studio FX, supplemented by digital work that can seem a little jarring–not because they aren’t well-wrought, but since so many of Cronenberg’s past movies in this territory were made before CGI became a standard, it feels a little strange seeing it here. It’s great to have him back after all this time, and with the writer/director next tackling the paranormal chiller THE SHROUDS, we can look forward to more excursions into the darkest sides of his unique imagination.