Critic’s rating: ★★★★
(107 minutes; R)
David Cronenberg‘s latest head-twisting journey into the universe of the bizarre takes us to a place located in the not-distant future — or simply untethered from time? who can really say? — where the denizens of a mysterious unidentified land certainly appear to look like us.
But these characters behave like a species from another planet, and the trip offers more than a bit of cinematic deja ju for fans of the Canadian filmmaker.
Got body horror, as in fears about an indescribable thing growing inside of you that might kill you or someone else? Check. How about the melding of flesh-and-blood life forms with non-human entities, as a next step in mankind’s evolution? Yep. Sexual desire triggered and fulfilled by pain, or at least, from extreme discomfort? Naturally. Technological advancements as conduits to human salvation? Of course. Unintended consequences of medical manipulation gone wild? Gooey, slimey, oozing objects that may or may not have something to do with body parts? Folks who sometimes move about as if sleepwalking, have dead-eyed stares, and frequently speak in an affectless manner? Check, check, and check.
“Crimes of the Future,” released six years or so after the provocation-minded director, now 79, suggested that he was considering retiring due to the difficulties of obtaining financing for his productions, is perhaps even more grim and gruesome than many of the Cronenberg films it directly references, particularly including “Videodrome,” “eXistenZ,” “Crash,” “Dead Ringers,” “The Fly” and “Scanners.” On the other hand, the new one doesn’t pack nearly the same emotional wallop punch as did some of those movies.
Is that because viewers are less disturbed by these types of images? Or is it because self-consciousness has crept into the approach of a film artist who appears to be recycling his own tried-and-true themes? Is the law of diminishing returns at work here?
Cronenberg, working from his own original screenplay for the first time in more than 20 years, knows how to construct a strikingly original, wildly creative setting that doesn’t remotely resemble anything else that’s likely to flicker across the big screen this year. His new tale, shot in Greece, appears to be set in a vaguely European, oddly underpopulated seaside village, with winding cobblestone streets and ancient buildings, the exteriors of which are defaced with graffiti. Everything in this vacuum-sealed universe is grey and dark, and vast warehouse-size spaces and cramped offices alike look as if they’re located in some isolated, mostly forgotten Eastern Bloc burg. Bright colors are few and far between. Spiritual and emotional oppression seem to reign. What kind of fresh hell is this, anyway?
Cronenberg gives no mercy in the opening act, immediately throwing viewers into a bit of dramatic action that transpires between a boy (Sozos Sotiris), playing at the shore, and a young mother (Lihi Kornowski), calling to him from the balcony of a nearby home. Shortly later, the kid is in a tiny bathroom, furiously chewing up a plastic wastebasket. And then comes a disturbing sequence that won’t be described here (no spoilers). The filmmaker seems to be issuing the first of several similar dares: If you can stomach this, then maybe you’ll hang on for the oddities and horrors to come.
Soon, enough, the protagonist arrives, in the form of Saul Tenser, played by Cronenberg regular Viggo Mortensen (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, A Dangerous Method). Frequently seen hunched over, writhing in digestive pain — it’s all tense, per his surname — and hiding behind a black hooded cloak, he’s enmeshed in a long-term sexual and business relationship with Caprice (Lea Seydoux), a former trauma surgeon. The two are performance artists whose specialty is live surgery on stage, where she uses a fleshly controller to guide instruments that cut into the torso of her partner, who lays inside a contraption called a Sark (variation on “sarcophagus”?). Nearby, a screen flashes “Body is Reality.” A hush settles over the crowd as the grisly proceedings unfold.
For its audience of entranced cool-kid viewers, some of whom later thrill to the dancing of a man who has sewn — grown? — human ears all over his body, the act is artistic and erotic. “Surgery is the new sex,” exclaims one believer. But for the performers, it’s also pragmatic: Saul inexplicably is regularly growing new organs. Rather than waiting to see what might unfold if a new system of organs were to develop on his insides, he chooses to excise the invader from his body. He simultaneously views himself as simply the nearest available warm body in the duo’s shows and also as a first-born creature, an accidental messianic figure whose biological transformation points to the shape of humans to come: “I’m just a mechanic,” he explains. “I install doors and windows into the future.” Later, he describes his unsolicited gift in terms that a pregnant woman might use: “I do have something cooking (inside), maybe a few things.”
Saul is able to go under the knife, without anesthesia, because humans who occupy this era have lost their capacity to feel pain. For fun, they practice surgery on one another in the open streets. These images suggest nothing as much as glazed-over young people shooting up with heroin or other drugs — surgery may be the new sex on this planet, but it’s also the new high.
And growing organs is the new pregnancy, available to males, females or the sexes in between. As ever, though, the government has a vested interest in all the bodily comings and goings. Thus the existence of the National Organ Registry, located in a dingy office staffed by a couple of maybe loveable oddballs played to near-perfection by Don McKellar and Kristen Stewart. The two, who practically melt in Saul’s organ-star presence, are the source of some of the most lighthearted moments in a film that benefits from some well-measured injections of dark comedy.
The film’s narrative is also driven by the a “New Vice” police detective’s (Welket Bungue) investigation into a cult of plastic purple-bar eaters led by Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman), the father of the boy seen in the opening sequence.
If “Crimes of the Future” (not to be confused with Cronenberg’s hourlong 1970 movie of the same name) is classified as a genre film, it might best appreciated as a multi-genre effort, a potentially combustible blend of sci-fi and horror, with a crime story and psychological drama tucked into the mix, heavily sprinkled with social commentary about human evolution, sexual variations, and environmental catastrophe.
While neither as accomplished nor as riveting as the filmmaker’s earlier work, and fitted with an abrupt ending that feels as if Cronenberg simply couldn’t settle on a satisfying conclusion, “Crimes” stands as another quite striking vision from a veteran innovator and provocateur whose film art is unlike that of anyone else making theatrically released feature films. That’s no mean feat.
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