Director: David Cronenberg
Stars: Léa Seydoux, Kristen Stewart, Viggo Mortensen
There’s a season four episode of The X-Files (“Leonard Betts”) in which a genetic mutant riddled with tumors is compelled to consume cancerous tissue. Indeed, he needs it to survive. During one of his usual intuitive leaps, Agent Mulder surmises that the man might represent the next step in our evolution; that the body would ultimately defend itself against its greatest threat by making it an integral part of our design. Assimilation or death.
It’s a theory that recurs here in David Cronenberg’s surprise – but most welcome – return to the cinematic landscape, though it manifests in quite another form. Eight long years after Maps to the Stars (and 23 years since his last fully self-gestated work) the singular Canadian master has emerged with a career-spanning thesis on his favourite themes; human evolution, sex and technology – here co-mingled into a noxious night fever both unmistakably his and far, far removed from even his closest imitators. As such, even when it’s wanting, Crimes of the Future feels like a minor miracle.
Some indeterminate future. We’re somewhere on the Mediterranean (scenes were shot on the Greek coast). Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) is a reclusive and becloaked performance artist living with his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux). Their act? Live surgeries, performed on Saul by Caprice in which she excises never-before-seen organs from within his body. Saul appears to have a natural aptitude for gestating these anomalous creations. Their exact purpose never known. His conscious involvement up for debate.
Their ‘art’ draws attention from many quarters. Principally, the National Organ Registry, whose two-man staff treat Saul like a celebrity; gracious administrator Wippet (fellow Canadian director and eXistenZ alum Don McKellar) and his squirrelly assistant Timlin (Kristen Stewart). But others are waiting in the shadows for the right moment to step into the light, including the grieving father (Scott Speedman) of a murdered child (Sotiris Sozos) who has a morbid proposition that piques Saul’s interest.
Showing an immediate infatuation and turning up at one of his shows, the staccato Timlin proffers Saul the provocation that “surgery is the new sex”. This challenge to Saul – and us – sets Crimes up as an echo of Cronenberg’s Ballardian masterpiece Crash, but there’s even more at play here than that film’s musings on dismembered obsession. Surgery requires two participants; the patient and the one wielding the scalpel. Implicit in the allusion to sex are the roles of the dominant and submissive, something that recurs in the character dynamics under Cronenberg’s microscope.
Caprice, for instance, is the orator of the duo’s performance pieces as well as the surgeon (operating from a toad-like fleshy device that she attaches around her abdomen). Saul is often merely the prone meat for the chopping. But Caprice confronts him with a desire for more authority and ownership in their work, seemingly jealous of or intimidated by his gift for generating new internal organs. Does she see her part as ultimately lesser? The frame around his works of art?
As we travel through the twilight world of Crimes of the Future, further career-spanning obsessions present. There’s a conspiratorial labyrinth of assassins and covert agents that recalls the head-spinning machinations at work in several past Cronenberg pot-boilers (Scanners, Videodrome, Naked Lunch, eXistenZ), while the inherent yearning for new doctrines with which to forge a future speaks to the same sense of spiritual crisis that underpinned both Cosmopolis and Crash.
Remnants of the past manifest physically, too. The ‘breakfast chair’ in which Saul sits to digest his food with optimum efficiency frames him like the Mugwump consuming Julian Sands in Naked Lunch, which the medical implements of this vision seem of a similar species to the “gynaecological instruments for use on mutant women” that haunted Dead Ringers. Synthetic bodily orifices and their probes mirror the technologies of eXistenz, and Crimes shares that film’s analogue sensibilities. There’s not a digital readout in sight, and the only timepieces on screen have hands. This (along with the plainly functional fashions on display) will help Crimes avoid the fast-dating that ages so many other sci-fi movies. Cronenberg is adept at making his fantasies timeless.
All of which suggests that this is a fusion of the old with little of the new, but that isn’t the case either. While there is a sense of Cronenberg smirking from behind the camera and leaning into his earned reputation to gall his audience, there’s that perennial sense of restless inquiry into whatever’s next. This spurs Crimes with the energy it needs to survive. Over the years his loyal crew have become, in effect, his company, but there are changes in the roster here that bring about their own evolutions. Fresh blood, if you will.
While scoring mainstay Howard Shore is on hand with another beguiling and oppressive set of vignettes, Cronenberg works here with a different DP. His former collaborator Peter Suschitsky elected to pass on this one for whatever reason, but in his place Douglas Koch conjures a balmy Mediterranean noir, evoking the recent works of Portuguese master Pedro Costa. This crepuscular quality breeds an air of heady potentiality, eerie space and lurking danger. Graham Green by way of Claire Denis.
But always, chiefly, Cronenberg.
While there are set-pieces of a kind and Cronenberg dabbles in the realms of pulp fiction fantasies (two coquettish repairwomen played by Nadia Litz and Tanaya Beatty spice the film with a flourish of comic book cool), Crimes is mainly interested in massaging the brain, manipulating avenues of thought and encouraging unforeseen connections. It’s the work of an elder statesman of genre cinema rapping the younger generation across the knuckles to remind them he’s still hard where it counts. And if that turn of phrase recalls David Lynch’s Gordon Cole in Twin Peaks: The Return, well, that’s deliberate. Lynch is Cronenberg’s closest contemporary, and if Crimes feels kindred to Lynch’s 18-hour epic it is because both are utterly unapologetic and uncompromised. Sets of pondered ideas sealed within their own hermetic worlds. Brains inside skulls.
There’s a lot to digest here (pun intended), and not nearly enough of whatever Kristen Stewart is doing, but such a sense of invigoration in modern cinema is truly rare, so much so that an encounter like this feels almost orgasmic.
Surgery might not be the new sex. Maybe cinema is. This is good cinema.