There’s a scene in David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999), with Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh in a Chinese restaurant. The server places a large mutant amphibian of some kind in front of them. It looks vile. “I have just lost my appetite,” Law says. “A shame,” the server replies. “Mutant reptiles provide new and previously unimagined taste sensations.” And so Law starts eating, breaking off pieces, sucking at the slimy flesh. As if in a dream, he simultaneously fits the bones and exoskeleton in the shape of a gun. Once it’s assembled, he shoots the server upon Leigh’s urging.
I would recommend watching this scene on YouTube even if you don’t want to watch eXistenZ. It’s not only disgusting, it’s hilarious and difficult to dislodge from your brain. When I saw it recently, I realised the scene works only because of the frank delight Cronenberg takes in the physicality of what’s going on. As Law slurps and crunches for two minutes, the viewer has no choice but to imagine what it must taste like.
The same luxuriation in the body and its outer limits suffuses Cronenberg’s new film, Crimes Of The Future (streaming on MUBI). Much of the director’s work is lumped under “body horror” but this is an inadequate term. Cronenberg does not seem to feel horror at what bodies can do, or be. Instead, there’s a sense of delight and exploration—whether it’s the mutant amphibian on the plate in eXistenZ or the mutant organs in Crimes Of The Future. An unspecified number of years in the future, physical pain has been all but eliminated. Surgeries can be performed on people without sedation—which is what Caprice (Léa Seydoux) does on her husband, Saul (Viggo Mortensen), in front of a live audience.
Saul, however, is not without pain. When we first meet him, he’s in a special bed that resembles the hard brown shell of a crustacean, suspended from the ceiling by thick shoots. He looks like Kafka’s protagonist after the metamorphosis—or something out of Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991). We later see him in a chair designed to help him swallow food. These problems exist because of a condition in which Saul’s body grows vestigial organs. It is these organs that Caprice removes in their transgressive performance art shows, massaging a frog-like console attached to her midriff which controls the machine that cuts Saul open.
Their performance is witnessed by Wippet (Don McKellar) and Timlin (Kristen Stewart), bureaucrats with the national organ registry. They are toxic superfans of Saul and Caprice’s enigmatic creators. Timlin, in particular, can’t help herself, whispering “Surgery is the new sex” into Saul’s ear as his wife looks on disapprovingly. She’s right, though—Saul does seem in a sort of coital bliss when being operated on, or later, when Caprice, in the film’s most blatantly provocative scene, fellates an opening in his stomach. Saul’s reply is weary (“Does there have to be new sex?”) but Cronenberg has always been on the lookout for the new sex, which is rarely sensual, and, more often than not, linked with pain and metamorphosis.
Saul, whose condition makes him a cult hero of sorts, is sought out by radical evolutionists, who have modified their bodies to be able to digest plastic. One of them offers his dead son—whom we see eat a wastebin at the start of the film—to the couple as a subject for a live autopsy. They are conflicted—but also tempted. The evolutionists eat purple supplements made of synthetic material, a clever variation on the famous conclusion to Soylent Green (1973): Are those eating the bars even people?
Cronenberg and Mortensen are one of the underrated director-actor pairs of the last two decades, collaborating on the neo-noirs A History Of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007) and the Freud-Jung film A Dangerous Method. (2011). Cronenberg always seems to unleash something in the actor which other directors don’t. Here he gives a wry, wary, physical performance, punctuating his scenes with a series of hacking coughs, throat clearing, wheezes and groans. Saul’s sardonic outlook is a nice contrast with Caprice’s more emotional way of being, Seydoux, as always, finding her way to the bruised heart of her character. But it’s Stewart’s performance that’s the boldest—and most likely to divide opinion. She takes all the nervous tics and gestures that so infuriate her critics and crams them into the few scenes she has. Her sentences emerge in a rush, like air escaping a balloon. It’s difficult to tell if the character is supposed to unnerve everyone around her, or whether it’s just everyone reacting to Stewart’s choices.
It might seem strange but Crimes Of The Future, along with being gross and provocative as advertised, is a very funny film. Cronenberg’s last two films, Cosmopolis (2012) and Maps To The Stars (2014), have their adherents but I think Crimes achieves its deadpan tone more convincingly. There’s a ‘New Vice Unit’; Wippet jokingly announces their motto as “no crime like the present”. There’s an “inner beauty pageant—for tattooed body organs. The exchanges between Saul and Timlin have the pregnant pauses and awkwardness of cringe comedy. There’s a scene where she keeps advancing towards him with her nervous fluttering energy. They end up kissing but then Saul disengages, saying, “I am not very good at the old sex.”
Crimes Of The Future, like most Cronenberg films, lends itself to all sorts of interpretations. I, however, kept losing myself in its brilliant surface: the pull and push of diverse acting styles, the brilliantly tactile beds and chairs that look like torture devices, the wincing sight of Ear Man. Meaning is not just found in metaphor. Sometimes it hides in plain sight, like a fish gun, or a young boy’s tattooed heart.