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DIRECTED BY: David Cronenberg
FEATURING: Viggo Mortensen, , , Kristen Stewart, Don McKellar, Welket Bungué
PLOT: Sometime in the future, for unknown reasons, human evolution has accelerated; one man makes performance art out of growing new organs and surgically removing them before a live audience, while other groups attempt to put their own stamp on humanity’s future.
WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Recycling a title from the very beginning of his career, this grisly summation of Cronenberg’s unique brand of carnal depravity feels like it’s closing a circle.
COMMENTS: The crime that opens David Cronenberg’s latest feature is a rough and bizarre reverse-Oedipal affair. It seems that the crimes of the future will have to be extreme, considering what passes for entertainment: the arts are dominated by grotesque displays of self-surgery. For unknown reasons, evolution has gone askew. The ability to feel pain has diminished in the general populace, while certain people—among them our performance artist protagonist, Saul Tesher—spontaneously grow new organs, of uncertain function. A pair of government functionaries run a novel “organ registry” out of a dusty office, but act more like obsessed fans than bureaucrats. A special police “vice” unit defends the integrity of the human body, but when “surgery is the new sex,” what rises to the level of crime?
Sickly Saul Tenser (Mortensen) wanders eerily deserted streets, wrapped from head to toe like a Bedouin prowling the Interzone. The world is almost depopulated; the only crowds are found at surgical theaters. One lonely conversation plays out in front of a beached yacht, a symbol of a world wrenched from its purposes. A surprisingly high number of expository scenes drag the pace down, but they are punctuated by moments of squirmy perfection: a man festooned with growths who sews up his eyes and mouth before performing a dance, Saul and his assistant Caprice () embracing in the nude while being punctured by remote-control scalpels.
Crimes calmly and coldly considers the aging Cronenberg’s obsession with carnality. Shadowy cabals, which hint at the promise of some rational purpose behind the apparent randomness of bodily decay, yield only more mysteries upon investigation. He adds a new measure self-reflexivity—how can showing people being sliced up be considered art?—along with a satire of our contemporary passion for body modification, a sad attempt to assert symbolic control over the vessels that will eventually rebel against us. But his main theme remains the fragility of the human body, its arbitrariness and lack of integrity, its susceptibility to maiming and tumors. It’s a graphic and honest vision of mortality; the strangeness of the presentation masks the inevitability of the decrepitude he prophesies. Although the story lacks the narrative drive of Cronenberg’s earlier features—rather than climaxing in the uncovering of a grand conspiracy, the ending here fades out—the atmosphere of evil, corruption, mutation and decay is as strong as ever.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…the story is difficult to digest. It is more an amalgamation of all things David Cronenberg than something genuinely compelling with something new to say… Even if it doesn’t amount to much, it’s still weird and worthwhile and unmistakably David Cronenberg.”–Robert Kojder, Flickering Myth (contemporaneous)