The next step in evolution

The next step in evolution

Cronenberg's surgery horror hits Cannes

The next step in evolution
Crimes Of The Future. (Photo courtesy of CANNES FILM FESTIVAL)

The maestro is teasing us, with his favourite instrument: the scalpel. Mechanical, electrified scalpels that split open the flesh -- often, the belly -- like a bulging purse being unzipped. This time, what comes out of the belly is a menagerie of grotesque organs -- organs with neither names nor functions, grown inside the body primed for involuntary evolution.

David Cronenberg's Crimes Of The Future is one of the most anticipated films at the 75th Cannes Film Festival. It turns out to be what everyone thinks it's going to be, not more, not less. This is a vintage Cronenberg, full of icky displays of internal organs (this time, they are tattooed) and bizarre apparatus that look simultaneously like taxidermied monsters and medical equipment. It's also a late Cronenberg -- the Canadian is turning 80 -- still bold and fearless and yet a little less sharp.

The premise is ingenious, anatomically speaking. In the near future, humans have the ability to "grow" new organs inside their bodies. These new organs have no known functions, and since humans have also become immune to pain, they sometimes undergo "desktop operation" -- sidewalk surgery performed practically by anybody with a razor -- to remove these growths. Our leading couple are Saul Tenser (the monkish Viggo Mortensen) and Caprice (Lea Seydoux), performance artists who act out live surgery to their audience in a setup resembling installation art ("the body is reality", reads a text on a monitor). Saul is a celebrity in the scene: he has "cooked" many new organs inside his body, and his show is legendary for its surgical sophistication performed on a designer autopsy bed.

New organs must be registered with the authorities -- theoretically, they may become important in future evolution. Kristin Stewart plays Timlin, an eager bureaucrat who becomes a big fan of Saul. Watching Caprice penetrating Saul's flesh with a scalpel, Timlin is transfixed and super-thrilled. "Surgery," she declares, "is the new sex." And so we're deep in the Cronenbergian body-horror territory of guts, mutations, anatomical riots, eroticised flesh and carnal machines.

The plot will get many confused, though it doesn't really matter after a while. Saul, it turns out, is a police informer and is dragged into a case in which a boy has been murdered by his own mother after she found out that he was capable of eating and digesting plastic. Is this a sign of advanced evolution, when humans are able to consume the toxic, man-made industrial waste that is destroying the anthropocene world? In any case, Saul and Caprice are plotting their next show, a spectacular autopsy that will take everyone's breath away.

All of this is pretty silly, and Cronenberg knows that (his actors do, too). At the same time, this is what he has done for decades -- since Dead Ringers, The Fly, Scanners, Crash, Videodrome, ExistenZ -- and no director can turn gross-out B-movie material into prestige arthouse fare with major stars like he does. Crimes Of The Future is hardly his best work, but it's a welcoming return to the familiar terrain of macabre sci-fi/horror after his diversion into psycho-thriller such as A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis.

Before the premiere in Cannes, Cronenberg predicted, half-jokingly, that he expected mass walkouts within the first five minutes. That didn't happen. Crimes Of The Future would have been scandalous 10 years ago, not now. It looks like the audience -- and controversy-prone Cannes -- have evolved, too.

Crimes Of The Future still has no Thai distributor at the moment, though we hope it will make its way here soon, somehow.

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