Crimes of the Future review: Cronenberg hails the old flesh

If Hell has an Ikea, it’s fully stocked with the designer grotesqueries that pass for furniture in Crimes of the Future. Dangling womb hammocks, the latest advance in bio-mechanical Tempur-Pedic technology, squirm to relieve the discomfort of those slumbering within their folds. A chair, seemingly made from nothing but bone, rather hilariously jerks and fidgets to ease the digestion process of fussy eaters. The grandest of these organic-machine luxury amenities is an automated surgery pod whose incising tentacles are controlled by a shuddering, insectlike remote. The Geek Squad technicians ogle the appliance like a sports car, admiring its shiny surfaces and gleaming hospital hardware.

Who else but Carol Spier could have designed this mutant showroom? Her baroquely unmistakable work is the earliest indication that we’re watching someone plummet off the wagon into an all-night bender two decades after he went cold turkey on his biggest vice. That someone, of course, is David Cronenberg, the Canadian director of such gooey, goopy triumphs as The Fly, Videodromeand Naked Lunch. His vice, creatively speaking, was once body horror, the queasy strain of corporeally fixated nightmare fuel on which he built a reputation. Cronenberg got clean at the end of the last century, kicking his habit of wreaking havoc on humanity’s spongiest bits. But after 20 years sober, he’s ready to party like it’s 1999. No flesh, old or new, is safe.

The future of Crimes of the Future is one where human evolution has sped up to accommodate the rate at which we’re poisoning ourselves and the planet. Pain is a thing of the past, and mysterious new organs sprout inside people with such regularity that a whole government agency has been established to track them. Adapting to this new world order is celebrity performance artist Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), who goes under the knife for work and pleasure. His body is the canvas, the blade the brush. Early into the film, he straps himself into that portable operating theater, where his partner in art and life, Caprice (Léa Seydoux), remotely fishes an invasive tumor out of his guts to a chorus of oohs and aahs.

Kristen Stewart and Léa Seydoux look serious.

“Surgery is the new sex,” someone gushes at Saul after the procedure-performance. It’s one of a few lines in Crimes of the Future that flirt with outright self-parody of Cronenberg-speak, that singular alien language he’s been refining and expanding since the 1970s. The man’s movies can start baffling, overwhelming you with their oddball terminology and taxonomies. By the end, a viewer feels fluent, like an expat learning the native tongue by immersing themselves in it every day. It helps that Cronenberg tends to find actors capable of delivering his sci-fi vocabularies almost naturalistically.

He actually wrote Crimes of the Future in ’99. Back then, it might have felt like him repeating himself — a greatest hits of mutilation and pontification. But the time away from his wheelhouse has put a wry, self-reflective distance between Cronenberg and his pet themes. Crimes of the Future is maximalist in concept, minimalist in execution. Its vision of the world to come has an industrial claustrophobia: All dank spaces, dimly lit. As in the last feature he scripted himself, the capitalism-in-decline art thriller CosmopolisCronenberg limits his world-building mostly to conversations — Saul’s tête-à-têtes with a revolving cast of peers, functionaries, and fans with noir names.

The plot, to be perfectly honest, is inscrutable and borderline arbitrary. It concerns the growing conflict between representatives of various political factions, all with different opinions about the proper next steps for our species. One of them, a bereaved father named Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman), wants Saul to work the corpse of his dead son into his next performance. The child, smothered by his mother in the ominous opening sequence, ate plastic like candy. Is this our only chance at survival: To develop the ability to consume our synthetic imperishables? The narrative drips with philosophical questions, but it never totally comes together, and trails off a little at the end.

Viggo Mortensen wears a black cloak well.

It’s much easier to admire Crimes of the Future as a wicked art-world satire. For all the outré imagery that provoked walkouts at Cannes last monthCronenberg isn’t really out to shock here. The tone is frequently amused, and the margins squirm with first-rate gags: The “edgy” interpretative dancer who’s grown ears all over his body, to no plain end; an Inner Beauty Pageant that’s plainly a goof on the absurdity of the Oscar race; and Kristen Stewart, doing incredible mannered shtick as a bureaucrat struggling to contain her fangirl enthusiasm for Saul’s body art.

Viggo, puckishly droll and physically precise, is plainly playing some version of his director: A gray-haired provocateur of literal body horror. It’s a self-deprecating self-portrait by proxy, allowing the filmmaker to meditate on his status as a wearying elder statesman of gross-out artistry. Has Cronenberg thawed some over the decades? Crimes of the Future is withering on the macro scale of mankind (this is not a hopeful vision of where we might end up), but surprisingly optimistic on the business of sharing a life and calling. The scenes between Saul and Caprice exude the genuine good-humored warmth of a couple well-suited in shared perversions, plus an unlikely sexiness. Who but Seydoux could make unzipping a stomach to tongue the intestines enticing?

It’s the artistic process that Cronenberg most winningly slaps on the slab. How fitting, that a film of such anatomical obsession would find its greatest insights by looking inward, not outward. If art is about exposing one’s true self, then how much more honest can an artist get than splitting their own abdomen to reveal what pulsates and glistens within? Saul’s extraneous organs, extracted for the edification of the bourgeoisie, are inspiration itself. But does removing them and marking them reduce them somehow, the same way that no realization of a creative idea can compete with the pure version in your head? Also, is Caprice, slicing and dicing from a distance, the real artist? Cronenberg has never done it all alone; he’s always counted on his collaborators, going back to his earliest excursions into the messy secrets of the body and mind.

The title, incidentally, is borrowed from one of those inaugural experiments — a low-budget, barely watchable campus art drama that basically amounted to Cronenberg rattling off all of the preoccupations he would later develop into revolting masterpieces. It’s tempting to think of Crimes of the Future as him going full circle, ready to reclaim the squishy subgenre he largely birthed. But for all its vague echoes of transgressive classics, this is not a regressive victory lap. It’s a primo old-master movie, laidback in its own gory way, in which a luminary surveys his kingdom and reassesses his place in it. And by returning to his most iconic mode, Cronenberg slyly interrogates the expectations we put on artists — to fit their passion to someone else’s agenda, to evolve and to stay the same all at once. It’s an insight that cuts as deep as any scalpel.

Crimes of the Future is now playing in select theaters. For more reviews and writing by A.A. Dowd, visit his Authory page.

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