The future isn’t what it used to be. But that’s not stopping David Cronenberg. The 79-year-old Canadian auteur, who has seemingly spent his career trying to make squeamish audiences avert their eyes from his visions, has been labeled the Baron of Blood for his vivid horror/science fiction predilections. Nevertheless, it’s been eight years since his last directorial effort, 2014’s Maps to the Stars.
The COVID-19 era would appear to be the ideal setting for one of Doctor Cronenberg’s excursions to the dark side, yet he has evidently had difficulty finding the backing for his projects. His latest, Crimes of the Future, a Canadian-Greek co-prod shot on location in Athens, aims to pick up the thread from the filmmaker’s classic period with the story of a pair of “performing artists” operating in the bleakest of times and places.
Saul Tenser (played by Cronenberg regular Viggo Mortensen) is not a well man, even in the context of his profession. His body is a checkerboard of scars and anomalies, he sleeps in a suspended “orchid bed” that shields him as if he were an insect pupa and he cloaks his thin frame in a black hooded robe, like a Medieval representation of Death. But that’s nothing compared to his internal organs. Saul has an act with his partner, Caprice (Léa Seydoux): she cuts him open, rearranges and tattoos his insides and displays them on a tray, as if they were creatively wrought tumor art instead of just a disorderly plate of giblets.
Cronenberg has dealt with similarly queasy-making “futuristic” sci-fi conceptions before, in Crash (auto-accident-victim amputees), Naked Lunch (a junkie’s hallucination of writhing “mugwumps”), Dead Ringers (gynecologist armed with hideous implements), Videodrome (people turning into televisions), The Fly (people turning into insects), etc. The idea—aside from the freak-show mechanisms of plastic surgery queens and professional masochists—is that the human condition has somehow changed. “Insurrectional evolution” is to blame. The poisoning of the planet, endless viral pandemics and the increasing application of dubious technologies to the human body have set the table for dystopian fictions, all this as we sit masked in the auditorium, watching.
Crimes of the Future—a rewrite/remake of Cronenberg’s 1970 short feature of the same name, about a crazed dermatologist—capitalizes on ordinary fears of decay and death with the chilly, practiced air of a mad scientist who spent his youth watching Herschell Gordon Lewis movies instead of doing his physics homework. Is it a regular policier with sick humor, a guignol for bored fan boys, a sophisticated snuff flick or an SPFX extravaganza in search of a unifying slogan (“Surgery is the new sex,” proclaims one character)? Take your pick, but as Saul and Caprice embellish their portfolios, the weakness of the scenario grows more obvious. In interviews, Cronenberg has stated his impatience with the categorizing of his films as genre place-holders. Why complain? They’re a genre all their own, science fiction overrun with picturesque giblets. The scariest thing about Cronenberg’s narratives is not that they’re realistically possible, but that they lack mystery—the snooping of Detective Cope (Welket Bungué) notwithstanding.
Mortensen portrays Saul as a martyr in a self-induced ecstatic trance, neither here nor there but everywhere, like advertising. Seydoux’s Caprice enlarges on her repertoire of wised up, pissed off, disrespected functionaries, à la Célestine, the vengeful domestic in Diary of a Chambermaid (2015). At the National Organ Registry, the quietly sinister Timlin (Kristen Stewart) loiters with intent—we keep waiting for her to pounce. Meanwhile, in his remarkable 15th credit in collaboration with Cronenberg, composer Howard Shore contributes another appropriately ominous score.
Let’s spare a final word for the film’s most pathetic character, the damaged young boy Brecken (Sotiris Siozos), who can digest plastic, and whose graphic autopsy scene may yet qualify this movie as borderline kiddie porn. Wish we hadn’t seen that. There are quite enough Barons of Blood. Physician, cure thyself.
In theaters June 3