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Sex from a scalpel blade in Cronenberg's "Crimes of the Future"

Crimes of the Future

Starring Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux, Kristen Stewart, Scott Speedman, Welket Bungué, Don McKellar, Yorgos Pirpassopoulos, Tanaya Beatty and Nadia Litz. Written and directed by David Cronenberg. Opens June 3 at TIFF Bell Lightbox.107 minutes. STC


Peter Howell

Movie Critic

Welcome to the nightmare ahead, where people grow new organs as art, modify body parts for fashion and consume plastic for food.

“Crimes of the Future” presents a world to come that’s made all the more terrifying by David Cronenberg, master filmmaker and seer of dark visions.

His return to the body horror genre that made his name is in some ways a greatest hits collection of his macabre fascinations, with callbacks — all subconscious, he insists — to the Cronenbergian realms of “Videodrome,” “The Fly,” “eXistenZ,” “Dead Ringers” and others.

“Crimes of the Future” shares mostly just a title with an earlier Cronenberg film. Its essential DNA comes from the shelved “Painkillers” script of more than 20 years ago. Considering what he’s conjured here out of a leftover idea, you have to wonder what other great stuff he’s been sitting on.

“Crimes” was filmed in and around Athens, where grungy interiors and bleak exteriors (a ruined and abandoned ship speaks of social disarray) create a noir atmosphere, courtesy of Carol Spier’s production design. Howard Shore’s score of gloom and wonder imparts a mood of impending revolution.

And revolution is indeed underway, in the person of hooded and hermitic performance artist Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen). He has learned how to grow new organs within his body, hatching them while he sleeps inside a plugged-in sarcophagus that resembles a giant walnut shell.

These “neo-organs” are removed by Saul’s partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux), a former surgeon, in public displays that resemble the art salons of old. (They’re not alone: other people engage in such knife blade antics, since pain and infection have been all but eliminated and “surgery is the new sex” for thrill seekers.)

The government of the day isn’t quite sure what to do about neo-organs and the “desktop surgery” fad, other than to control them. A National Organ Registry has been created, run by bureaucratic voyeurs Wippet (Don McKellar) and Timlin (Kristen Stewart) who seek to avoid “insurrectional” evolution that might destroy whatever remains of civilization. Saul and Caprice are happy to assist them, tattooing Saul’s new organs so they can be easily logged and traced.

The cops are on the case, too, with a “New Vice Unit” represented by a detective played by Welket Bungué. He understandably wonders why Saul’s neo-organs are considered an art form akin to Picasso’s creations while the tumour on his own body is just a potentially dangerous nuisance.

Another group, led by Scott Speedman’s Lang Dotrice, hovers in the shadows but seeks broader public attention. They are people who have learned how to consume plastics and other synthetic materials as food and who want more to join them. Lang is planning a public autopsy — on the body of his murdered eight-year-old son — to dramatize the cause.

As horrifying as this sounds, and it is, there’s also much wit in “Crimes.” Such as when Timlin, besotted with Saul, tells him “you can be open with me.” This to a man who had a zipper installed in his abdomen for easier surgical access.

There’s much happening here as Cronenberg sardonically comments on cosmetic surgery, environmental destruction and the feeling of all artists, himself included, that putting your work before the public is akin to being operated on in the city square.

If there’s any downside to “Crimes,” it’s that it introduces characters and story arcs that are somewhat unresolved, although that’s likely a deliberate move by Cronenberg. Like all great entertainers, he leaves us wanting more, even if in this case satisfaction comes at the end of a scalpel. 🌓

(This review originally ran in the Toronto Star.)


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