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7 September 2022

David Cronenberg, master of body horror, returns with Crimes of the Future

It’s been 20 years since he dabbled in gore, but the award-winning director is back at the operating table.

By Ryan Gilbey

The uproar over David Cronenberg’s 1996 adaptation of JG Ballard’s Crash – “Ban This Car Crash Sex Film!” cried the Daily Mail – looks almost quaint today, the picture itself rendered archaic in the age of self-driving vehicles and Uber. It has been more than 20 years, too, since this Canadian horror maestro dabbled in gore (eXistenZ, from 1999, included a bone-and-sinew pistol that fires human teeth) and even longer since Dead Ringers (1988), starring Jeremy Irons as twin gynaecologists who dream of internal beauty contests: “Best spleen, most perfectly developed kidneys…”

For his first feature in eight years, Cronenberg, now 79, returns to the operating table. Crimes of the Future is a new film with an old title: he used it previously for a 1970 featurette populated by foot fetishists and paedophiles. (Imagine if the Mail had got wind of that.) The 21st-century model has no connection with the Crimes of the past beyond a narrative kink. The earlier film alludes to one character’s ability to generate “puzzling” new organs inside his own body. The new one puts that condition in the foreground, and names it Accelerated Evolutionary Syndrome. Faced with a polluted environment, the body has begun to adapt and rebel.

The insides of Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) are so gnarled that he can only digest food while perched in a bony, knobbly mechanical throne which jostles him as he eats. (The armrests are just that: skeletal arms.) Sleep isn’t any easier. He lies alone in a nutshell bed suspended from spider-leg vines: think Louise Bourgeois rather than DFS. Suckers attached to his hands and feet allow the device to monitor him. “This bed needs new software,” he tells his partner, Caprice (Léa Seydoux). “It’s not anticipating my pain any more.”

Fortunately, Saul and Caprice can transform agony into art. Whenever a new organ or tumour develops inside him, Caprice, a kind of keyhole tattooist, adopts it as her canvas. She then uses robotic scalpels to remove the illustrated viscera before an audience of aesthetes and hipsters. No wonder Saul’s torso looks like a noughts-and-crosses game. Nosing around at one of their shows is the shifty Lang (Scott Speedman), who offers them the corpse of his eight-year-old son, promising some startling biological revelations.

Graphic surgery, infanticide, autopsies, even death-by-power-drill at one point—and yet Crimes of the Future has a cosy, overfamiliar air. Typically for the director, the tone is flattened, the humour deadpan. His cinematographer, Douglas Koch, composes muddy images in dun-coloured interiors; it’s as though the movie were shot in a digestive system. (In fact, it was filmed in Athens, and begins with a ravishing if anomalous view of the Aegean Sea.)

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Despite some pertinent ideas about humanity adapting to plastic pollution by learning to digest the stuff, Crimes of the Future feels like a weary summing-up, or a singles compilation from a once-pioneering band. All the Cronenberg hits are here: the romantic couple blasé in their transgressions (Crash, Naked Lunch); the body reacting to trauma in gruesome ways (The Brood); human parts as collectible artefacts (The Fly); the artificial absorbed by the corporeal (Videodrome). Mortensen gets his fourth lead role with the director. Internal beauty contests are permitted another mention.

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Greatest-hits albums sometimes include an extra track to tempt the jaded buyer, however, and in this case that function is fulfilled by Kristen Stewart. She plays the twitchy Timlin, who runs the National Organ Registry out of a poky office with her fellow bureaucrat Wippet (Don McKellar). Keen to catalogue Saul’s offcuts but forced to hide her appetite behind a professional veneer, she gulps and gasps breathlessly. “Surgery is the new sex,” she pants, which must make NHS waiting lists the new celibacy.

Stewart’s every choice is precisely modulated: I loved the tight, smug smile she flashes while explaining to a cop the value of Saul’s organs, as though trying not to show that she thinks she’s addressing a moron. Physically, she recalls Dwight Frye as Renfield in the 1931 Dracula, right down to the slicked hair and famished eyes. And she displays a special gift for the comedy of posture. Her neck is mostly hidden, her shoulders practically touching her ears. She must have been in such a rush to see Saul’s latest aberration that she neglected to remove the hanger before she put on her shirt that morning.

“Crimes of the Future” is in cinemas from 9 September

[See also: Antonio Banderas and the art of self-parody]

This article appears in the 07 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Liz Truss Unchained