Don’t eat the purple candy bars. That might be the most lucid takeaway from “Crimes of the Future,” David Cronenberg’s latest provocation that takes an intriguing premise only to muddle it up within a tedious story, equally tiresome characters, the director’s fetishistic go-tos, self-conscious opacity and blunt obviousness.
Those last two don’t make for a winning combination, even when it comes by way of Viggo Mortensen and Léa Seydoux, who never flag in their commitment in a movie that rivals Lars von Trier at his cruelest and most voyeuristic. Mortensen gags, hacks and coughs his way through his performance as Saul Tenser, a performance artist whose body has begun to create strange, never-before-seen tumors; his partner Caprice (Seydoux) removes them in public surgeries that are the toast of the gallery-hopping set.
They resemble the mentalists in “Nightmare Alley,” only here Cronenberg is imagining the near future, when public surgeries are the norm, people’s threshold for pain has virtually disappeared and the body has taken on increasingly abstract contours as a site of suffering, self-expression, experimentation and, as one character puts it, “evolutionary derangement.”
With “Crimes of the Future,” Cronenberg returns to territory he’s visited before, that discomfiting no man’s land between science fiction, body horror, social commentary and good ol’ sex and death. Viewers familiar with his adaptation of “The Fly,” as well as “Dead Ringers” and “Crash,” will recognize the same fascination with grotesque physical transformation, menacing surgical instruments and heavy machinery.
Saul’s therapy includes sleeping in a hammock-like womb programmed to anticipate his pain; he eats in a contraption resembling a robotic exoskeleton. When Caprice operates on him, she deploys remote scalpels with a biomorphic-looking device that she fingers caressingly just under her heaving bodice; she looks like a modern-day Elsa Lanchester channeling the bride of Frankenstein for a new, more cynical age.
With its outré images and pulsating shots of human viscera, “Crimes of the Future” is clearly meant to shock, as well as reference very real anxieties about technology, genetics and environmental degradation. But as the convoluted plot wears on, Cronenberg’s transgressive kink looks more and more played out. He develops an irritating habit of explaining his symbolism through characters who spend a lot of time spouting dialogue that’s expository without illuminating much.
Kristen Stewart plays Timlin, a bureaucrat whose interest in cataloging Saul’s mutations gives way to a doe-eyed crush; in a squirrelly, fey performance, she follows him like a bobby-soxer chasing after a pop idol. “Surgery is the new sex,” she says excitedly in her breathless whisper – just in case the idea hadn’t penetrated thoroughly, even literally, over the past several minutes.
One of the titular crimes of Cronenberg’s tableau of horrors occurs in the film’s opening scene, a set piece of ruthlessness, anguish and sheer oddity. That episode winds up coming full circle to involve Saul and Caprice in a stunt that will put their competitors (a dervish-dancing man who has sprouted multiple ears; a woman who mutilates herself for the delectation of the elite) to shame. That climactic sequence feels shamelessly opportunistic yet undeniably timely, at a cultural moment when shame seems to be in its own state of evolutionary derangement – or disappearance.
Inside “Crimes of the Future” is a movie fighting to get out, in order to share valuable ideas about that extinction event. But it remains trapped in a hermetic, tendentious womb of its own.