There’s a moment in Crimes of the Future where surgical performance artist Saul Tenser returns home to show off his latest addition — a fleshy zipper installed across his abdomen.
Caprice, Saul’s partner, is clearly excited by the possibilities. As she begins licking the opening, Saul grunts: “Don’t spill it.”
Cronenberg is back.
Droll, disturbing and surprisingly sentimental Crimes of the Future marks director David Cronenberg’s return to what he’s best known for — a vivid and visceral obsession with the body and characters driven to alter themselves.
Shot in Greece and set in an empty near-future scenario, the film revolves around a group of transgressive artists who regularly perform surgery on themselves. Viggo Mortensen plays Saul, who grows and then displays his neo-organs to the baying crowds in a warped cabaret.
In this dirty, dank dystopia there are organ registrars played by Don McKellar and a positively giddy Kristen Stewart. While they cloak themselves with the air of authority, they are clearly the groupies to this new artistic movement.
WATCH | Director David Cronenberg on why he finds the human body fascinating:
With a storyline involving mutant hybrids and ingested microplastics, Crimes of the Future seems timely, but it’s actually based on a script Cronenberg started 20 years ago. After a lot of prodding from Canadian producer Robert Lantos, Cronenburg pulled it out of a drawer for another look. With typical Cronenbergian humility he told CBC News, “I read it and I thought, ‘Yeah, it is good and yeah, I wouldn’t mind making it.'”
Lantos says 20 years after its inception the film is still prescient. “We’re just beginning to catch up to where this story is going and leading.”
Crimes of the Future is a heady buffet of ideas and tangents, involving inner beauty pageants, shady “New Vice” cops and underground revolutionaries looking to push the limits of evolution. Not everything lands, but as always with Cronenberg there is much to … chew on.
On stage at the Canadian premiere, TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey asked Cronenberg what it all means and the director joked, “Nothing.”
But his casual response belied his confidence as a filmmaker.
It’s all there on the squeamish surface, this realm where humans are so desperate to feel something they cut into themselves. Dive deeper and we find allusions to a broken planet, perhaps wracked by climate change, where a radical new evolution is necessary.
WATCH | Viggo Mortensen talks about his similarities to Cronenberg:
From the pod-like bed that Saul inserts himself into, or the feeding chair with horrifying mandibles, there’s a lurid consistency to the artifacts of Crime of the Future that could only be called Cronenbergian. His is a world where technology isn’t assembled but hatched.
Yet for all the great, gooey and gory weirdness that is David, the cast all talked about the relaxed vibe on set. McKellar says Cronenberg doesn’t block or shotlist his scenes and easily adapts to his actors.
Canadian journeyman actor Scott Speedman knew the director from his fearsome films, but “then you meet him and he’s like the loveliest, funniest, sweetest man who does one take [and says] ‘I’m ready to move on.'”
While the coverage of the premiere at Cannes was all about gasps and walkouts, what’s often overlooked is the pulsating heart of so many of Cronenberg’s films: people with a desperate need to connect. Actor and filmmaker Nadia Litz who plays software technician Dani says, “Watch the humanity in it because there’s a lot of it.”
Body is reality
When asked on the Toronto red carpet about his enduring obsession with our bodies, Cronenberg said he’s surprised more directors don’t share his fascination. “Body is reality and, for me, that’s not just a catchy phrase. It is reality. It is my reality. I think that’s what we are.”
But under the organs and the shocking sights which include the autopsy of a young nude boy, there’s a melancholic strain to Crimes of the Future that could surprise fans. Is it possible to call a movie about people who willingly mutilate themselves sweet?
That, for Mortensen, is the contradiction that is Cronenberg. Crimes of the Future marks Mortensen’s third time working with the director. A director who seems similar to the provocative artist he plays.
“He’s very secretive about his persona, about his body. There’s a certain modesty there and almost passed on timidity,” Mortensen said.
“Yet his art involves revealing his literally his innermost secrets. And I would say that’s true of David. He’s a very gentle, quiet and thoughtful, self-effacing man. And you look at the stories he tells.”
Crimes of the Future opens across Canada on Friday