In the dystopian world of Crimes of the Future, it is often repeated that ‘surgery is the new sex’, an aphorism to explain the replacement of pleasure by pain, and how the two have become one and the same. Though he might have written those words, it’s not an axiom that old maestro David Cronenberg – in his first film in eight years – restricts himself to. His film is packed full of both surgery *and* sex, flesh both beautiful and grotesque around which he builds a cold and lo-fi vision of the future, one where human bodies have begun to rebel against the post-industrial society they have been raised in.
Perhaps the most rebellious body belongs to Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), a performance artist in the habit of growing new, mysterious organs inside his body, which he then has removed at live surgery shows by his performance partner and lover Caprice (Lea Seydoux). We never really know just what effect these new organs are having on Saul, but as he shuffles around the dingy Greek towns he calls home, his gags and splutters suggest a deep discomfort.
Saul and Caprice’s shows form the centrepiece of Cronenberg’s very loose plot, which also features a radical cell of ‘evolutionarily deranged’ people who have modified themselves to feed on plastic, the government agents seeking to stop them, and a pair of tech support workers who moonlight as assassins. Though that might look like a set of ingredients for a thriller on paper, Crimes of the Future is never in enough of a hurry to dip its toes into that genre, and it’s all the better for it.
The world Cronenberg creates here is an extraordinarily believable and immersive one, from his trademark nauseating set designs (much of the furniture here looks like it’s made out of human pieces) to dialogue that genuinely sounds like it’s from a new reality, without being irritating or impenetrable. The characters truly reflect the world they inhabit in a way that is rare for even otherwise solid sci-fi, and the cast have a lot of fun with it, especially Kristen Stewart as nervous but horny bureaucrat Timlin, who falls deeply under the spell of Saul and Caprice’s performances. It’s also just really well-shot and, after so many big budget films which use darkness as an excuse for utterly incomprehensible cinematography, it’s great to see Cronenberg’s perfectly-lit night scenes, the soft light making the futuristic wastelands much more striking, if never quite actually beautiful.
Of course, there is the expected Cronenberg body-horror, but nothing here will repulse like the sights of, say, Videodrome, Crash, or The Fly. In fact, despite opening with a scene of a mother smothering her creepy eight year old son, Crimes of the Future is one of Cronenberg’s less transgressive films, more chilly than downright horrifying. It might aggravate some that his return to the big screen after almost a decade is a slighter entry into the Cronenberg canon, but that doesn’t stop it from being deeply compelling, and it is also often very funny.
Mortensen earns the majority of these laughs with Saul’s skulking movements and habit of hiding but coughing in a corner, dressed in all black like a sort of terminally ill ninja. He also gets a lot to play with when it comes to Saul’s artistic ego, and Crimes of the Future as a whole has a lot to say about creativity and the idea of who can really own art. It might not be visceral enough for certain Cronenberg fans, but I found Crimes of the Future’s slow exploration of its themes to be eventually hypnotic, all the way up to an absolutely glorious final shot.