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'Crimes of the Future' is a dystopian thriller that cuts to the heart

Kristen Stewart (left) is a fan of the surgery Léa Seydoux performs in <em>Crimes of the Future</em>.
Kristen Stewart (left) is a fan of the surgery Léa Seydoux performs in Crimes of the Future.

With its graphic images of stomachs being sliced open, organs being removed, and eyes and mouths being sewn shut, David Cronenberg's Crimes of the Future is certainly not for the squeamish. But then why, as someone who self-identifies as squeamish, did I enjoy it so much? Maybe it's because while this director loves his gaping wounds and exploding heads, he wields his scalpel here with extraordinary finesse.

There's a cool elegance and a disarming playfulness to this movie that pulls you in, even (or especially) at its most grotesque moments. And as with most of Cronenberg's movies, the pleasures are intellectual as well as visceral. Crimes of the Future isn't always easy to watch, but it's an awful lot of fun to think about.

The movie takes place in a grim future where humans have lost the ability to feel physical pain and have started operating on their own bodies. In this thrill-seeking world, surgery is the new sex — something that a lot of people do for kicks or even to earn a quick buck from live audiences. Others — like Saul Tenser, played by Viggo Mortensen, and his partner, Caprice, played by Léa Seydoux — have elevated it to a form of avant-garde performance art.

Saul has a medical condition in which his body keeps producing abnormal organs, which Caprice removes during their nightly shows. As grisly as these public spectacles are, the fact that the characters don't feel pain has a similarly anesthetizing effect on us as viewers. And there's a kinky pleasure to these scenes, too: Saul, lying in a high-tech, coffin-like bed called a Sark module, clearly enjoys being sliced open by Caprice's remote-controlled blades.

One of the funnier things about Crimes of the Future is that it plays like a deadpan satire of the modern art world, in which Saul and Caprice must contend with rivals, fans and even groupies. But not unlike Saul's restless body, the movie itself keeps mutating, switching genres and sprouting new ideas at will.

The story morphs into a noirish mystery, complete with a nosy detective and a couple of power-drill-wielding femmes fatales. It's also a bizarrely touching love story, and both Mortensen and Seydoux suggest a deep core of passion beneath their characters' clinical exchanges. The movie is also an ecological parable, in which human biology is changing dramatically in response to a rapidly decaying environment. One key subplot involves an underground group of eco-anarchists who have willfully altered their bodies so that they can digest plastic and thus consume much of the planet's industrial waste.

There's a lot going on here, in other words, and Crimes of the Future spends a fair amount of time unpacking its own premise, though with a droll wit that keeps the exposition from sounding too much like exposition. As ever, Cronenberg and his longtime production designer, Carol Spier, are adept at telling their story visually. Some of their more memorable inventions are the devices that Saul uses to offset the effects of his condition: a giant bed that gyrates when he sleeps, or a mechanized chair that aids with his eating and digestion.

None of this is exactly new territory for Cronenberg. He actually wrote the script for Crimes of the Future more than 20 years ago but the movie never got off the ground until now. That may explain why it plays like a return to his career-long obsessions in films like The Fly and Crash, both of which examined how technology is literally reshaping the human body. In his 1983 horror classic, Videodrome, the characters kept saying "Long live the new flesh!" — a grim mantra that's hard not to think about in Crimes of the Future, whenever a scalpel touches skin.

Cronenberg is asking, quite sincerely: What are we doing to our planet, and how is that affecting the very composition of our bodies — and in turn, the next phase of human evolution? And not for the first time, he makes brilliant use of his regular collaborator, Viggo Mortensen, who starred in earlier Cronenberg dramas like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. In those movies, Mortensen played physically imposing gangsters; in Crimes of the Future, his character moves slowly and speaks in a raspy voice, rendered frail by his condition. There's great tenderness in Mortensen's performance, and he and Seydoux are very moving as two people who can truly be said to love each other, body and soul. That rush of romantic feeling may be the most shocking thing about Crimes of the Future: For all its blood and guts, this movie's biggest organ is its heart.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.