David Cronenberg understands that for voyeurs — aka cinema audiences — arousal is not stimulated by seeing sex acts so much as it is from seeing their participants’ pleasure. In Crimes of the Future, his first feature in eight years, half-closed eyes, low moans, and arched backs are as integral to his vision as shots of metal tools piercing and pulling apart flesh. The film may depict a future world in which pain doesn’t exist and “surgery is the new sex,” but that heady sci-fi concept is almost beside the point; a deep erotic charge pumps through its veins.
Surgery is the name of the game for performance artists Caprice (Léa Seydoux) and Saul (Viggo Mortensen). Thanks to his “Accelerated Evolution Syndrome,” he can use his body as a petri dish to grow new organs, which she then ceremoniously extracts during live performances. They’re artistic partners, sometimes lovers, and she is also his full-time carer, as his condition makes it difficult for him to digest food and sleep. They have no work-life balance, cohabiting in an ascetic lair dominated by bug-like contraptions (like a “SARK Unit” and an “OrchidBed”) that would look right at home in Alien.
The story plays out in a dilapidated Greek seaside town, one of crumbling pillars, deserted streets, and shadowy corners that make ideal lurking stations. Cronenberg’s regular production designer, Carol Spier, excels in the creation of an austere world dotted with futuristic contraptions in muted shades. Against this dank color scheme, metal surgical tools and Seydoux’s red lips are as striking as shooting stars. Little exposition is given about the precise system undergirding this dystopia. All we need to know is that it is dark and seedy and the human body has evolved beyond our current understanding. Performances carry the illicit allure of underground cabarets in Weimar-era Germany. Thrill-seekers gather to admire spectacles like a man with extra ears dotted across his body writhing in his underpants.
Saul, who skulks about in a cape, is a celebrity in this after-hours world. He and Caprice are summoned by Wippet (Don McKellar) and Timlin (Kristen Stewart), bureaucrats of the National Organ Registry who are investigating Saul’s syndrome. Saul is also a police informant, meeting with a New Vice detective (Welket Bungué) in a rusting shipyard where intestinal coils of rope represent another visual coup from Spier. Finally, Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman), the head of a group of revolutionaries who subsist on plastic, is shadowing Saul in the hope of convincing him to do a performance-autopsy on his dead son (whose murder by Dotrice’s distressed ex-wife opens the movie).
These plot mechanics are convoluted, and give the impression that Cronenberg dashed out a framework fully aware that the story isn’t what draws people to a sexy body horror film. Much like in porn, where a buff engineer shows up at a woman’s door “to fix the shower,” he’s all but winking at the audience as his sizzling cast reacts with physical abandon to the sensations of being sliced up. Said cast are also in harmony earnestly delivering the wild script. “Watching you filled me with the desire to cut my face open,” Seydoux whispers seductively after watching one artist at work. Shortly afterward she does exactly that, bearing bright facial welts for the rest of the film.
Timlin is a shy paper-pusher who has a sexual awakening after seeing Saul and Caprice perform, and Stewart plays the discovery of her depravity with hushed urgency, quivering as she scuttles about like a postcoital mouse. Seydoux was born for her role, a Bond Girl through the looking glass, one part vah-vah-voom bombshell and one part sicko. Caprice was once a trauma surgeon, and brings the steely professionalism of the operating theatre to the actual theatre. Surgical instruments are guided by a malleable touchpad, a touch of visual absurdity that pops beside the deadly serious performances.
Crimes of the Future is a revamped megamix of vintage Cronenberg vibes, featuring the sci-fi stylings of The Fly, the sexual fetishism of Crash, and the bodily transmutations of Videodrome. Released a year after Julia Ducournau won the Palme d’Or for her woman-fucks-car opus Titane, it plays like a joyful and generous reminder that the Canadian godfather of gore is still up to deliver the goods for a specific type of cinephile. Funny, serious, and sexy all at once, it plumbs a vein of body horror that, while provocative, has blood pumping in its hot little heart. Cronenberg presents the appetites of these characters without comment. If surgery is the new sex, then so be it. Aided by Howard Shore’s throbbing, echoey score, he views the primal urgency driving his characters into the future as the same force guiding us now in the present.
Crimes of the Future is now playing in select theaters.