‘Crimes of the Future’: Commentary’s sharp and so are the scalpels in the year’s freakiest film

People are cutting their mutating bodies in David Cronenberg’s unsettling but thought-provoking dystopian nightmare.

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In the performances of Saul (Viggo Mortensen) and Caprice (Léa Seydoux), she slices him open and removes his unwanted organs in “Crimes of the Future.”

Neon

You might have heard about the polarizing audience reaction at the Cannes Film Festival to David Cronenberg’s spectacularly gruesome and deeply disturbing noir body horror film “Crimes of the Future,” with Variety reporting some viewers walked out while those who stayed to the end voiced their approval with a seven-minute standing ovation.

First, I love those reports from Cannes about lengthy standing ovations, from the 11-minute Standing O for “Inglorious Basterds” in 2009 to the 17-minute applause marathon for “The Neon Demon” in 2016 to the 22-minute standing ovation for Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” in 2006. Twenty-two minutes! Amazing. If you stood up right now and gave a 22-minute standing ovation, you’d be exhausted (and people would be looking at you). I think my all-time record for a standing ovation is eight minutes, when the White Sox won the World Series in 2005.

Having experienced Cronenberg’s uniquely creepy, dystopian nightmare, which includes several graphic scenes of body-slicing surgery among other horrific images, I can understand why some viewers would opt out early on, while others might be repulsed and yet fascinated. I did not walk out because I will never prematurely leave any screening (that’s not the job), nor did I give it a standing ovation. (I hopped to my feet, but that was just to get going.)

‘Crimes of the Future’

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Neon presents a film written and directed by David Cronenberg. Rated R (for strong disturbing violent content and grisly images, graphic nudity and some language). Running time: 107 minutes. Opens Thursday in local theaters.

My reaction was somewhere in between: while there are times when Cronenberg seems to be indulging in his trademark gross-out visuals for the sake of shock, “Crimes of the Future” is darkly funny and consistently thoughtful — and, for all its moments of extreme horror, offers legitimate commentary on issues such as body dysmorphia and the extreme measures taken by some real-world individuals in order to carve, sculpt and tattoo their bodies as evolving canvasses of expression.

I’ll freely admit to wincing a few times and audibly groaning on one occasion at the intense grotesqueries transpiring onscreen, and I’m not clamoring to see this one again while munching on a big bowl o’ snacks — but there’s no denying the effectiveness of this dark, provocative and memorably unsettling story from the 79-year-old Cronenberg, who has been serving up classic shock-and-splatter moments since the days of “Rabid” (1977), “Scanners” (1981), “The Fly” (1986) and “Dead Ringer” (1988). This isn’t the best film of 2022, but it’s definitely the freakiest so far.

“Crimes of the Future” was filmed in Greece but seems to be set in some sort of undefined near-future, vaguely steampunk world in which towns are sparsely populated, abandoned ships lie on their sides in the sea and the technology is a cross between 1980s camcorders and bizarro beds and chairs that seem a lot more torturous than comfortable. We’re never told exactly how the Earth was ravaged (one surmises it was tied to climate change), but what’s left is a dark and strange place where the relatively few that have survived seemed to have morphed into beings that don’t feel pain or pleasure, at least not in conventional ways, and some people are growing new body parts internally and experiencing strange mutations externally, due to a condition known as Accelerated Evolution Syndrome.

Cronenberg stalwart Viggo Mortensen (“A History of Violence,” “Eastern Promises”) delivers a magnificently stoic and simmering performance as one Saul Tenser, who along with his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux) form a popular performance duo and let’s just say they ain’t exactly the Captain and Tennille. Their act consists of Caprice manipulating a remote control that controls the scalpels that slice open Saul as she massages, tattoos and removes the new organs that keep forming in Saul’s body. (Given the heaving breathing and even moaning that accompanies the procedures, it’s clear “surgery is the new sex,” as one character puts it.)

This is just one of the ways in which the human body is adapting and mutating in strange and disturbing ways; in a subplot that eventually careens head-on with the story of Saul and Caprice, a woman has killed her 8-year-old son because he has developed the ability to eat and digest plastic, and she considers the boy to no longer be human.

We meet a handful of oddball characters along the way, including the weirdly cheerful Wippet (Don McKellar), who heads the underfunded National Organ Registry, and his tightly wound assistant Timlin (Kristen Stewart), who is attracted to Saul; Detective Cope (Welket Bungué) of the New Vice Unit of Justice, who is investigating a cult-like group that embraces Saul as some kind of messianic harbinger of the future, and a couple of wisecracking and dangerous operatives (Tanaya Beatty and Nadia Litz) who will just as casually disrobe as they’ll stick power drills in your skull and instantly end you.

Many of the loose (and grisly and blood-soaked) ends in “Crimes of the Future” are tied together in the climactic sequences, and there’s a moment of pure cinematic poetry when a close-up of Mortensen looks lifted from a classic German expressionist film from a century ago. Body horror abounds in “Crimes of the Future,” but through Cronenberg’s skilled direction and the powerful performances of the cast, there’s something almost soulful about these people trying to somehow adapt to and even celebrate the hellish world they’ve inherited.

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