Crimes Of The Future review: David Cronenberg returns to body horror

Lea Seydoux, Viggo Mortensen and Kristen Stewart in David Cronenberg's Crimes Of The Future
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David Cronenberg returns to body horror with Crimes Of The Future – an uncompromising fusion of drama and graphic splatter.

Director David Cronenberg’s up to his old tricks again. After more than 20 years away from the body horror genre – a cycle of films which previously ended with eXistenZ in 1999 he’s returned to the same fleshy, unsettling style of storytelling that initially made his name from the mid-70s onwards. Is Crimes Of The Future intended as a summing up or retrospective of his work? There are certainly echoes of just about every Cronenberg cut imaginable here, from the throbbing appendages of Rabid and Videodrome, via the quieter drama of Dead Ringers, to the sex-and-machines eroticism of Crash.

If all that’s unintentional, Crimes Of The Future has an air of deathly finality that’s pronounced even for a Cronenberg movie. Its nominal protagonist, Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) is an ageing performance artist seemingly kept alive by an array of bio-mechanical machines, including a (perhaps sentient) bed that turns his body in his sleep, and a bony chair that helps him choke down food. It’s the near future, and humanity has evidently lost its way: the streets are graffiti-strewn and crumbling, while its inhabitants have somehow lost the ability to feel pain or acquire infections.

Tenser is one of a growing number of humans whose body is capable of spontaneously growing new organs. Together with his ex-surgeon partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux), Tenser turns this ability (or is it a malady?) into an art form, with the couple surgically removing the growths from Tenser’s body in front of a visibly elated audience. These performances have made the couple world famous, though a proposition by a bereaved father (Scott Speedman) leaves them wondering just how far they’re willing to push their own moral boundaries in the name of art.

All hushed voices and unblinking stares, Crimes Of The Future is a typically uncompromising fusion of mannered drama and graphic splatter. Other directors may have taken up Cronenberg’s body horror mantle in recent years (including Titane director Julia Ducournau and Cronenberg’s own son, Brandon), but he still has the uncanny ability to throw out images that are surreal and stomach-churning: incisions open to reveal expertly tattooed internal organs; a young boy hungrily devours a plastic bin; a man whose body is studded with dozens of ears twists and cavorts to Howard Shore’s booming electronic soundtrack.

Kristen Stewart and Viggo Mortensen in David Cronenberg's Crimes Of The Future

Other scenes, which I won’t describe here, prompted walkouts among audiences at Cannes. (Festival movie-goers can be a bit theatrical at the best of times, but I can sort of see where they’re coming from in this instance.)

In many respects, this is vintage Cronenberg, then. It’s a button-pushing film that has a philosophical heart beating under all the blood and guts. It could also be interpreted as Cronenberg’s most pessimistic film. His earlier work was broadly on the side of the assorted diseases and technological or biological advancements it imagined. In Crimes Of The Future, the coming change is as inevitable as it was in something like Shivers (where the sex parasite takes over and liberates a tower block from its uptight prudishness), but that film’s sense of revolutionary glee is glaringly absent. Here, there’s a sense that our species is evolving into something less compassionate, perhaps even toxic.

What Crimes Of The Future lacks, though, is a charismatic performance to hold it all together. Videodrome was propelled by James Woods’ sleazy brilliance as low-rent cable station boss Max Renn; here, the dependably excellent Mortensen is asked to play a sickly, subdued character who spends much of the film talking at a barely-audible whisper or crouching in corners, shrouded in black cloth like Liam Neeson in Darkman. Similarly, Seydoux and Kristen Stewart (who plays a socially-awkward civil servant) give committed performances, but their characters remain a somewhat flat mix of tics and obscure motivations.

As a dark, avant-garde art film, though, Crimes Of The Future is still a compelling watch. Given that it’s arrived as the world emerges from a global pandemic, only to tumble into conflict and economic crisis, its depiction of a cruel, uncertain future feels almost worryingly apt.

Crimes Of The Future is in cinemas now.

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