Click here for the flashback interview with David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen for EASTERN PROMISES.
With CRIMES OF THE FUTURE, David Cronenberg once again presents us with a dystopian future, or is it an alternate present, that is alien and yet, somehow, instantly familiar. It’s not just the machines that mimic the skeletal structures of unknown animals, nor the saturated colors that are somehow simultaneously vibrant and drab hues of white, green, and brown. Cronenberg, whatever specific story he is telling, is exploring much more than what befalls a group of characters. He is dealing in very basic human longings and fears. Even when his whimsy, and he may be the most whimsical of the contemporary horror auteurs, leads him into digressions such as EASTERN PROMISES, he is still dealing in the prickling uncertainties of identity and a big world that is carelessly hostile, in this case with pollution and ennui.
This dystopian world, rife with vinyl records and cell phones that are a throwback to the turn of the century, is one where pain as such no longer exists. The zeitgeist of human evolving to cope with a man-made environment expresses itself with body modifications, where government agencies can’t keep up and performance artists are superstars. Jealous superstars. One such is Saul Tenser (Cronenberg muse Viggo Mortensen), whose specialty is his advanced Accelerated Evolution Syndrome, the human species response to the collapsing environment, by which he spontaneously grows random internal organs never before seen. His partner in life and art, the alluring Caprice (Léa Seydoux) removes them in front of an avid audience while Saul is completely conscious. It’s not just any surgery, though Caprice is a trained surgeon. The means is a modified Sark, a sarcophagus-like machine originally intended to perform autopsies by remote control. It’s a feature that allows Saul and Caprice to enjoy privately the pleasures of the film’s catch phrase: surgery is the new sex. And if there is any doubt as to the literalness of that phrase, look no further than the ecstasy on Saul’s face as the latest extraneous growth is deftly sliced from his abdomen.
This is most certainly not for the faint of heart, nor should it be. Before we get to the butchery, there is an 8-year-old eating a plastic wastepaper basket and being suffocated, with the attendant struggling and whimpers, by his oddly disaffected mother. As Cronenberg archly comments on the current norms of plastic surgery that create the air-brushed, and interchangeable, perfection of our standards of beauty, he is peeling away, literally, and figuratively, the desperate hope in these characters that the individualism of change for the grotesque will equal bliss. Seydoux, not an actress given to a volatile style of emoting, here positively glows as she effuses over the jagged cuts and scars on a rival performance artist’s face, mixing longing and a beatific rapture that no mere trick of lighting could possibly achieve. For the audience, the discordance is a Moebius strip of image versus idea that calls everything into question.
When there is no pain to provide boundaries, or even common sense, novelty is all. Even the mousy registrar at the grimy and low rent National Organ Registry, the bodaciously monikered and essentially ineffectual Mr. Wippet (Don McKellar), cannot escape the lure of these performances even as he decries the fact that no one washes their hands anymore. He wanders through their audiences with a grin on his face that mimics Caprice’s rapture. His partner, the skittish Miss Timlin (Kristen Stewart in a brilliantly staccato performance), is a walking mass of bemusements, contradictions, and curiosity, as she approaches Saul with both sides of her brain, fangirl and scientist.
For his part, Mortensen, dressed like the Grim Reaper and a picture of several flavors of passivity, suffers magnificently but with the dash of irony that elevates the entire film. It’s why the punch line is so, ahem, delicious (you will get it when you see it), and why the moral quandary of dissecting a corpse in front of star-worshiping audience takes on the proper weighty resonance of ethics amid the absurdity. The same is true when he speaks about the toll being an artist takes, and one can’t quite shake the feeling that Cronenberg is speaking through his muse about himself, and by extension all artists, giving their flesh and blood, figuratively, to a fickle, or worse, indifferent audience.
This is a world in which the mechanical, proto-sentient devices necessary for Saul to be able to sleep and eat are startlingly kinetic as they ruthlessly manipulate him as if he were a rag doll, and whose constituent parts are, of course, osteo-fantasies. It is at once avant-garde and primal, hilarious and distressing, all the while being more real than real. Cronenberg’s real genius is his ability to tap into what creeps us out the most at the level of the id. It goes far beyond the body horror on view. This is a disquieting précis on what any human being, even you or even me, can find not just normal, but also irresistibly gratifying, given the right set of circumstances. The monsters, alas, are not just on the screen. That nervous laughter of yours is as much whistling in the graveyard as unfettered amusement.