From deep in the bowels of David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future, you can hear the gurgle of profound ideas trying to find their way out: something about the evolution and persistence of art, about the limits and the miracles of the human body, about how the government will always try to find ways to control our autonomy. Damned if I know. But in movies, a vibe can often carry you much further than ideas can, and Crimes of the Future—playing in competition at the 75th Cannes Film Festival—has vibes to spare. You might not call this picture a major achievement—it’s both elegant and rather silly—but you can’t fault it for lack of vision. What other movie features Viggo Mortensen awakening in a spooky suspended sleeping pod that, while surely intended to signify futuristic innovation, still looks a lot like a walnut-shell bed in which a little Beatrix Potter mouse might slumber?
That’s OK. You don’t have to fully comprehend what Cronenberg’s going for here; for a while, at least, it’s enough just to go with it, and to revel in the fact that Cronenberg has returned to his familiar body-horror territory, greeting it like an old, if slimy, friend. Mortensen—now, in the wake of A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, one of Cronenberg’s signature actors—plays Saul Tenser, a man with the gift, or the curse, of growing extra organs that may or may not be of actual use to the human body. He and his partner in both work and life, Caprice (Léa Seydoux), are performance artists: she marks Saul’s new organs with tattoos and removes them in front of a live audience, by means of a piece of vintage equipment known as the Sark, formerly used to perform autopsies. Saul lies face-up in its sarcophagus-like confines as spiderlike half-organic, half mechanical arms slice into his skin with tiny scalpels. Little mechanical fingers reach in to pluck out this or that plummy prize, which is then plunked into a jar, as if ready for pickling. The whole process is orchestrated by Caprice, who stands nearby in an evening dress, controlling the Sark’s movements via a glowing contraption that looks like a giant jeweled brooch. The Sark is, as she explains in one of the movie’s many, many lines of expository dialogue, her “paintbrush,” one of the chief tools of her artistry, and Saul’s.
Cronenberg, who also wrote the script, has a lot of explaining to do here. He has created this world from scratch, setting his story in an unspecified future era, in what looks like a semi-deserted Eurotown, filled with underlit basement clubs and large performance spaces that look like moldy, abandoned villas; the whole movie feels inhabited by invisible spores. Caprice and Saul are the darlings of this brave new art world, in which body alterations of all sorts have become the rage. (“Desktop Surgery” is a thing.) They’re also affiliated with a government group known as the National Organ Registry, a tiny secret bureau consisting of nervous nerd Wippet (Don McKellar) and his even more neurotic sidekick Timlin (Kristen Stewart), who speaks in twitchy sentences that burst forth in three-word packets. Upon viewing one of Saul and Caprice’s organ-removal extravaganzas, Timlin is immediately smitten. “Surgery is the new sex,” she proclaims with glassy-eyed fervor. Later, she tries without success to horn in on Saul and Caprice’s act, but that’s a whole other subthread.
There’s more, so much more going on in Crimes of the Future, including a secret event called the Inner Beauty Pageant, a child who gives new meaning to the phrase “garbage pail kid,” a sinister troublemaker (Scott Speedman) who urges Saul and Caprice to use the Sark to perform a “public autopsy,” a deed that seems too transgressive even for them, and a team of gearheads (Tanaya Beatty and Nadia Litz) who love nothing more than to strip down and slide, naked and giggling, into the cool interior of an old Sark, like ‘70s teenagers turned on by the idea of necking in a Corvette. Cronenberg takes this material somewhat seriously, but he’s not above a good, silly chortle or two.
Is any of this sexy or sensual? That depends. Are the visuals too grim and ewky for the squeamish? That also depends. Before Cannes, Cronenberg predicted—or, rather, bragged—that his film, with its frequent depictions of the slicing and piercing of skin, as well as a brief sequence in which a semi-naked dancer’s mouth is sewn shut, would incite walkouts. But the picture isn’t lurid; in true Cronenberg fashion, it’s too cool and decorous for that. Between cinematographer Douglas Koch’s palette of cool, damp grays and the spooky whatsits conceived by Cronenberg’s frequent production designer Carol Spier, the picture mostly radiates a kind of moody elegance. There’s a lot of cool-looking stuff, pieces of furniture and apparatuses that appear to be constructed of bone, tendon, and metal, like an unholy alliance between the flesh and the earth. The movie’s majestically droney score, courtesy of Howard Shore, adds to the aura of depraved refinement.
Through it all, Mortensen’s Saul, whose organ-growing gifts also cause him to suffer intense pain, skulks around this dark, dank futureworld in a black cloak and face covering, though as hooded visions of death go, he’s less Bengt Ekerot in The Seventh Seal than William Sadler in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. With Crimes of the Future, Cronenberg paints a doomy tomorrow in which some humans have gone so far in altering their bodies—with piercings, surgeries, and all manner of stretching and manipulations—that they mess up the natural order of things. At one point a character explains, “Human evolution is going wrong. It’s insurrectional.” That disruption of the expected biological pattern is Cronenberg’s happy place. Why resist the ludicrous pleasure of surrendering to his scalpel?
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