“Let nothing be called natural in an age of bloody confusion,” said Brecht; after this film, things look bloodier and more confused than ever. David Cronenberg’s new movie in the Cannes competition, Crimes of the Future, is a body-horror atrocity exhibition in the Ballardian style that he gave us in Crash (1996), which was about the secret cult of connoisseurs devoted to the erotic dimension of car crashes. As for this film, one of the macabre things to be witnessed here has one character purring passionately: “It’s juicy with meaning!” Or … well … maybe just juicy. But very, very juicy indeed.
This is set in an eerie future world in which people’s bodies are changing and everyone is beginning to divine that they are on the brink of a post-human evolutionary stage. Developments in medicine and analgesia have diminished physical sensation to the extent that pain is a thing of the past, so much so that it is sought after by a bizarre new breed of sicko sybarites, but conventional sensual pleasure is withering away also, along with the disgust and fear that has always moderated human behaviour. And along with this, bodies themselves have also shown that they are capable of growing new organs, whose function is not yet clear.
Viggo Mortensen plays Saul Tenser, a performance artist whose body is exceptionally fertile with new organs. His girlfriend, former trauma surgeon Caprice (Léa Seydoux) helps him to cultivate these – he sleeps and eats in bizarre carbuncular cradles, which look as if Antoni Gaudí designed ICU hospital beds. Periodically Caprice gets her scalpel out and removes Saul’s weird new post-Anthropocene organs and tattoos them in front of a live audience (who are presumably paying for the privilege, although the ordinary pre-post-human issue of how Saul and Caprice are earning a living is not explicitly discussed).
Caprice and Saul are required to report to an official government unit tasked with monitoring this sort of thing, run by Wippet (Don McKellar) and his nervily intense assistant Timlin (Kristen Stewart). She mutters to Caprice that “surgery is the new sex” and tries kissing Saul, who replies evasively: “I’m not very good at the old sex.” (Although it is perhaps the dictates of the old sex that mean in this film attractive young women take their clothes off quite a lot.)
But Saul is secretly also reporting to a cop from the New Vice unit (Welket Bungué), about any possible infringements, and so he recounts his encounter with a certain Dr Nasatir (Yorgos Pirpassopoulos) who wants Saul to show his roilingly productive physiology for something called an “Inner Beauty Pageant”. There’s also a haunted figure called Lang (Scott Speedman), who claims that anatomising the corpse of his 10-year-old son, still in his possession, will prove that homo sapiens is developing the art of digesting plastic.
In some sense, Crimes of the Future is an epically and operatically huge black comedy of outrage: the “inner beauty pageant” is incidentally a joke I first heard on TV’s Arrested Development, although the point there was that judges assessed the sweet personality of plain people, not their actual innards. So comedy is certainly a way of looking at Crimes of the Future and Kristen Stewart’s excellent performance is a part of that.
But really the comedy interpretation could just be an incorrect and even hostile way of reading Crimes of the Future: laughing is Old Sex. Perhaps the point is that it has gone beyond Serious and Funny, beyond Disgusting and Sexy. The director has pointed out that this is not a remake of his 1970 film of the same name, but there are obvious points of similarity, with that earlier film’s themes of transgression, the clinical manipulation of sexuality, body fetish and weird gloopy stuff coming out of young people’s mouths. Is it just a mannerism? And a movie about a human world so impervious to traditional calamity that it is evolving its own occult inner galaxy of sensation is maybe obtuse given that we have not yet quite emerged from a global pandemic. At all events, it’s an extraordinary planet that Cronenberg lands us down on, and insists we remove our helmets before we’re quite sure we can breathe the air.
• Crimes of the Future screened at the Cannes film festival and is released in the UK on 9 September