A camera swims through the bodily fluids, the internal flesh ready for its close-up. Tattoos mark the organs like the body of a sailor. It’s this world in which body horror pioneer David Cronenberg sets Crimes of the Future, his first foray back into the world of sci-fi in over two decades.
Sometime in a non-specified future, a kid (Sozos Sotiris) plays in wastewater in the middle of nowhere. His mother (Lihi Kornowski) yells at him not to eat anything he finds. Once back inside, he begins eating a plastic wastebasket. Distraught, the mother makes a drastic decision before calling her ex-husband to come get “the creature” he calls his son. This act becomes one of several mysteries contained within Cronenberg’s film.
Before long Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), a performance artist with Accelerated Evolution Syndrome, crosses paths with the boy’s father Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman), an activist with a penchant for munching purple, plastic-looking bars. Tenser and his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux), an ex-trauma surgeon, create performance art out of his disorder which causes the spontaneous growth of new, uncategorized organs in his body. In this world few people can experience pain, and those who can turn their pain into art for a living. Dotrice wants to use Tenser’s art and platform for a much bigger, political purpose.
Even in this decrepit, post-apocalyptic world Capitalism looms over art, politics, and even science. “Surgery is the new sex,” declares Timlin (Kristen Stewart), a bureaucrat working in the National Organ Registry who is tasked with cataloging all new organs, and not-so-secretly lusts to be part of Tenser’s act. Like he did with fellow Twilight alum Robert Pattinson in Cosmopolis and Maps To The Stars, Cronenberg fully utilizes what makes Stewart such a unique screen performer. She eats words like air, spitting them back out with an atonal cadence. Described by Caprice as “especially creepy,” she speaks like her whole body is tense at all times, yet when the words come out, there is no release, just more tension. She is someone desperately in need of the release that only sex – or surgery – can provide.
Yet, in this world sex is still work and play, and those with means have the most access. Everyone wants to be a performance artist, with the ultra-rich modifying their bodies at swank art shows or cocktails parties, while the poorer population either watches, or lurk in back alleys trying to find pleasure by getting stabbed in the thigh with random hookups. As a bureaucrat, Timlin is supposed to only observe. But, Tenser has the privilege to walk through both these worlds, a liminal artist, uncontent in both spaces.
Styled a bit like David Rose if he were a Sith Lord, Mortensen spends much of his screentime swathed in a thick, black velvet robe. Only his melancholic gaze, and fey wrists, held like a velociraptor, can penetrate its obscurity. As in A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg taps into the cerebral side of the actor, pulling out an understated, often deadpan performance – a portrait of an artist at odds with the world, and with himself.
Seydoux matches Mortensen’s internalized intelligence, bringing an acuity to her sexuality, but also an open heart. Although her emotions remain mostly in check, they’re always hovering just below the surface, occasionally escaping through a soulful glance, or a slight change in the intonation of a word. Where Tenser’s art comes spontaneously, Caprice creates with the precision of a surgeon. Her tattoos, her atomonical drawings are done with the same deliberate acumen as Da Vinci.
Cronenberg uses the bones of a film noir to propel his story, though he is less interested in solving mysteries than in using genre techniques to explore his vision of the future, posing questions rather than providing answers. This noir feeling is underscored by Howard Shore’s droning, dread-inducing synth score and Douglas Koch’s skillful cinematography. Although draped in almost constant darkness, Koch still manages to find nuance and textures within his bleak palette, unlike so many washed out, lifeless films that aim for a similar vibe.
These accents, along with several visual cues, touch on the iconography of Cronenberg’s early works. Tenser’s fleshy bed and the breakfast chair feel like something out of Naked Lunch. Dotrice’s arc is reminiscent of the paranoid conspiracy thriller The Dead Zone. A particularly erotic moment between Seydoux and Mortensen involving a flesh zipper blow-job makes the body horror of Videodrome look tame in comparison. Long live the new sex.
Often asked if he’s working on anything new, Tenser replies he never knows – it just arrives. Art comes from within, from the mystical waters of the unconscious. Yet there is a desire for it to always be labeled and tagged and organized, to be consumed and explained and digestible. This tension between art and commerce is never more clear than in the world of film.
Cronenberg is as reverential to the process of artistic creation as he is critical of those who dabble in the world. The art world can be pretentious, can buy into its own self-aggrandizing mythos. New Vice Detective Cope (Welket Bungué) rejects Timlin likening Tenser’s new organs to a new Picasso, asking if the lump on his chest is a new Duchamp. Caprice attends an art party where a chic woman cuts gills into her face, claiming her art is trauma. What does any of this matter if it occurs in a vacuum? Is art for the sake of art enough? Where do politics fit in? These are intriguing questions, and Cronenberg is smart enough to know not to attempt to answer them. True knowledge comes from the seeking of answers, not necessarily in finding them.
A sharp rumination on art, politics, sex and life itself, Crimes of the Future treads old themes in new ways. Although Cronenberg dips into the thematic pool of his past work, Tenser’s journey to acceptance – of who he is, and what his body needs in order to create art – is something that can only be achieved by an artist towards the twilight of their career. A looking back is necessary in order to move forward, even in a world increasingly hellbent on destroying itself.
“Crimes of the Future” is in theaters Friday.