Writer/director David Cronenberg is back playing in the body horror wheelhouse that his fans love him for. Don’t expect a re-run of his early film of the same name, however, as this grimly stylish and disturbing film relishes in the transformation of the human condition.
The movie is set in a future in which humans have begun to evolve - or mutate, whichever your opinion - and performance artist Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) is gifted with an ability to grow new internal organs. Rather than wait to see if they have any purpose, he has his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux) tattoo them in situ before removing them in an avant-garde act to their appreciative audience, who record every moment with archaic devices like a modern crowd holding their mobile phone aloft at a concert. Tenser utilises modern, organic-looking equipment to aid his pain (which is now all but eradicated in this new world, making Tenser stand out even more), sleep, and consumption of food. The units are provided and serviced by a pair of workers from LifeFormWare, who take their job very seriously and are impressed that Tenser has a vintage model of a machine that was used for autopsies. Caprice remotely controls this during their performance with a blob that could have been left over from eXistenz (1999). With pain no issue, body modification has gone to the extreme, a rival performer wows the chin-strokers with a dance while displaying his body covered in extra ears, while a model has her face mutilated to look like gills. Elsewhere, there is a New Vice department (headed by Welket Bungué) and a governmental registry for new organs, based in a grotty building - since the risk of infections and pain is no longer a worry, hygiene appears to have lapsed - where Tenser meets Wippet (Don McKeller) and the rather odd Timlin (Kristen Stewart). They both break their own code when they become fascinated with the artists’ world, attending their shows. When a stranger, Lang (Scott Speedman), presents them with the opportunity to perform an autopsy on the corpse of his son and introduces them to a new breed of human that can consume and digest plastic, things get even more complicated for the duo.
Cronenberg’s world here is one of hedonistic flesh worship, where internal beauty contests reign. Here, surgery is the new sex (as Stewart’s character creepily interjects), although there are a few moments of ‘old style’ physicality. There are themes that regularly crop up in the director’s genre work - elements of Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983), Crash (1999), and the aforementioned eXistenZ are all here, in both the visuals and the concept, almost to the point of being included as fan service or a grotesque in-joke. But there’s an optimism, too, with the hope that we could perhaps evolve to overcome the environmental problem of non-biodegradable plastic (although those who do this are an underground, criminalised class).
The performance art echoes the work of Bob Flanagan, with Mortensen achingly superb as the constantly hacking, tortured artist. Seydoux also shines as his co-creator, who he insists takes equal credit for their act, even though he’s the one doing all the physical work. Despite the visceral elements, Crimes of the Future is relatively bloodless when it comes to the surgical aspects (although the opening scene is particularly shocking), but that doesn’t soften the impact of the procedures.
Cronenberg fans will no doubt get a lot out of this excursion back into his body horror days, while the art lovers will perhaps recognise themselves in the passive onlookers, recording every moment on their 35mm point-and-shoot and 8mm cine cameras. Mainstream audiences are advised to steer clear, however.Crimes of the Future is in cinemas now.