Just when his fans may have figured that David Cronenberg had called it a career (he’s now 79 and hadn’t made a feature since the misfired Maps to the Stars in 2014), along comes a film that only the Canadian maestro of the perverse could have created.
Obsessed more than ever here with body parts and the twisted and/or constructive uses he sees fit to assign to them, Cronenberg hasn’t made exactly a comedy with Crimes of the Future. But what could have been a grossly and even off-puttingly gruesome display of torturous experiments and corporal corruption has been treated with an unexpectedly light and even playful hand, a sense underlined by the characters’ tacit as well as explicit admissions that they don’t entirely know what they’re doing in their adventurous search to meld the human and the mechanical.
Originally readied for production in 2003 before being canceled, this is a film very much targeted to the director’s core audience; rarely, if ever, have human organs played such an important role in one of his works, and that’s saying something. But whether it’s age or inclination, he’s having a bit of fun with his grotesque conceits here and taking them less seriously; he’s not at a self-parody stage, but there’s something of a wink behind what he’s doing that wasn’t often in evidence before.
Everything that transpires here comes down in a claustrophobic, man-made world; there are few, if any, exterior scenes (the film was shot in studios in Greece in little more than a month’s time one year ago), and there is a rather shabby artificiality to the surroundings that emphasizes the marginality of the characters and their world.
All the same, they see what they’re doing as transformative, potentially (and necessarily) revolutionary. As with profoundly elemental advances such as the invention of explosives, surgery, flight,, electricity and so on, the misfit characters here advance the melding of humans and machines as the next frontier. As unlikely as it sounds, the premise takes root in an odd combination of technology and performance art.
David Cronenberg’s ‘Crimes Of The Future’ Scores Six-Minute Standing Ovation At Cannes World Premiere
The latter is the domain of Saul Tenser (Cronenberg regular Viggo Mortensen) and his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux), performers who have evolved a show that goes way beyond body art: They perform organ transplants and create alternate uses for body parts. Needless to say, this is edgy, trailblazing stuff; one surmises that what they do represents a very underground, cutting-edge form of entertainment, though what the rest of civilization is like at this point is anyone’s guess.
Saul is obsessive about his own body, introducing hormones into his bloodstream that produce new offshoots that he then introduces into his act as “organ restorations.” The process may be a bit stressful but not, evidently, all that painful; whatever the case, it’s worth it to the boundary-breaking Saul, a pioneering, adventurous soul who knows no limits and proclaims that “the artist’s goal is to seek pain.”
Naturally, the old hobgoblin of censorship still exists, here in the form of something called the New Vice Unit, for which Timlin (Kristen Stewart) is an investigator. Even as she herself admits that “surgery is the new sex,” she is still out in search of vice (however that manifests itself in this world), but her character remains a rather ambivalent one that Stewart plays in an oddly nervous way.
Plot and technology-wise, Cronenberg takes his story down the road to some interesting places, some of which open the door to ever-wilder, and sometimes wacky, destinations; the director carefully modulates the tone as he orchestrates a half-and-half mix between the shocker/exploitation elements of his earlier work and his more ambitious serious fare. The combination more or less works, as Crimes of the Future is serious, elegant and provocative enough to cut it as an art film in the Cannes competition while also delivering the gross goods of body parts and exploitation film provocations.
Not too many filmmakers can straddle the two, but Cronenberg still manages it pretty well.
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