Some movies don't really need a directorial credit on them: the identity of their creator is imprinted on every frame, every casting decision, every line of dialogue. It's the brushstroke of an artist or some other mark that a great stylist is about his or her craft.
Crimes of the Future (the new version) is mostly concerned with the doings of Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and his partner Caprice (Lea Seydoux), who are performance artists. The duo live in a strangely-divergent world where digital technology does not appear to exist and the process of human evolution has become somewhat fractious. One of the forms this takes is that Saul's body spontaneous generates new and mysterious organs – causing him some discomfort in the process – which Caprice then extracts on-stage using a device which resembles a sort of bone coffin sprouting bio-mechanical arms.
This has earned Saul and Caprice something of a following, amongst both other art-lovers and the people running the National Organ Registry, which keeps track of new pieces of internal human architecture (they are played by Don McKellar and Kristen Stewart). He is invited to enter the forthcoming Inner Beauty Contest, where he is likely to stand a good chance in the Best Original Organ category. But he has other things on his mind, such as an encounter with members of a cult with a very strange dietary restriction, and their idea for a new show in which the victim of a shocking murder is autopsied on stage...
Do I even need to tell you who wrote and directed Crimes of the Future? Does their identity not blaze forth from even this simple description? It's David Cronenberg. Of course it's David Cronenberg. It's such a David Cronenbergy film that if anyone else had come up with it (a fairly unlikely eventuality, of course) they would have been greeted with derision for such a blatant act of plagiarism. As it is, it is the most David Cronenbergy film that even Cronenberg himself has made in over twenty years – which I suppose is another way of saying that Cronenberg has, fairly effortlessly, managed to shed the trappings of his early films in favour of a less instantly recognisable mode of storytelling.
But here all those trappings return: gristly, throbbing bits of bio-machinery, a morbid fascination with rebellious organic matter, strange pseudo-erotic interactions between human and technology... at one point Kristen Stewart's character says 'Surgery is the new sex,' which is almost certainly the most Cronenbergy line you'll hear in a cinema this year. Needless to say, this is followed up by a moment in which Mortensen and Seydoux, in what looks very much like a post-coital embrace, recline ecstatically together in a skeletal sarcophagus as robotic scalpels carve into their soft flesh. Someone tells an artist 'Seeing you makes me want to cut my own face open', as a compliment.
Needless to say it is extreme and provocative, and arguably less well-mannered than most of Cronenberg's recent films. Apparently this was an old script that he fished out of his bottom drawer and reworked, which may explain why it seems to have more in common with a film like Videodrome than anything from this century. Then again, rumour had it that Cronenberg was actively contemplating retirement from film-making, such was his disillusionment with the whole process of raising finance, so we must be grateful for his making anything at all. (The strange world of film financing means that the new version of Crimes of the Future (Cronenberg's debut movie from over fifty years ago was also called Crimes of the Future, but the two are distinct entities – this isn't a remake) is a Greco-Canadian co-production, filmed on location in Athens, giving it a very distinct atmosphere and visual style.)
I must say that it is a real pleasure to see Cronenberg making this return visit to an area where he has previously produced so much of his most distinctive work. The visceral impact of the various strangenesses and outright horrors that he unleashes only gains in power from the fact that the director is clearly not just attempting to shock or nauseate the audience – even though there are moments in this film where I thought the director was in genuine danger of going too far – everything is in service to ideas and metaphors with real heft to them. At the heart of this film is a grotesque metaphor for the creative process; it also deals with questions of consumerism, ecology, and political freedom. The stew of ideas is almost overwhelming, both in its richness and in the casual way that Cronenberg presents the individual elements to the audience.
This is very reminiscent of what I suppose we should refer to as Classic Early Cronenberg – the string of unambiguous horror movies running through the 1970s and early 1980s that includes such famous works as Rabid, Shivers, The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome and The Fly, all of which found new ways to employ the notion of body-horror as a metaphor. The new Crimes of the Future does this, but I do feel compelled to admit that it resembles some of the earlier films in another way, too – when Cronenberg is really in full flow, the onslaught of ideas and images can be so irresistible that the actual plot can become a little oblique or, on the initial viewing at least, somewhat incoherent. That's the case here too: there's a plot about a cult and a couple of assassins that I never really felt I entirely understood. It's solely the fact that parts of Crimes of the Future seem a bit obscure and oblique that keeps me from suggesting the film contains rather more gratuitous nudity than is generally the case these days, even in a horror movie – for all I know the naked female cast members are all vital to the plot and theme of the movie, I'm just not recognising the connection.
Normally I'm very harsh on movies with incoherent plots, and it may indeed be the case that I am letting my respect for David Cronenberg get in the way of treating this film objectively. But I don't watch his films for the details of the plot, I watch them for the ideas, the squelchy bits, the metaphors. Crimes of the Future has all of those things in abundance, together with some excellent performances from a talented cast. It's a grisly, potentially disgusting, deliberately obscure and profoundly challenging film. But it also feels like a bit of a treat.