It's become increasingly apparent that the major North American directors spent lockdown looking backwards, uncertain as any of the rest of us as to their immediate future. Steven Spielberg redoubled his pre-Covid efforts to remodel a key text of his youth (West Side Story), then made exactly that youth the subject of his next project (the upcoming The Fabelmans). Paul Thomas Anderson got his Chopper bike out of storage to freewheel around a peer's Seventies adolescence (Licorice Pizza). David Cronenberg, for his part, has been inspired by the viral nightmare of the past two years to revisit the body horror that was such an integral part of his earliest films - indeed, his new film Crimes of the Future recycles the very title of one of his first experiments in building a loyal fanbase of freaks while freaking out everybody else. Everything thereafter is new flesh. The future this COTF envisions is one where years of environmental despoilment has seen mankind not just adapting to the elevated levels of plastic in its bloodstream but actively hungering for it, such that certain bodies have themselves become plastic, sprouting new organs like the replicas formed in a 3D printer. The drama Cronenberg thrusts us into, likewise, has plenty going on beneath the surface. This is a film engaged with evolution, the directions in which the world and its citizens are heading, and with the fraught relationship between art and the body; it even circles the never-more-vital themes of boundaries and consent. (In a characteristically warped fashion, it may be as close as this most upright of filmmakers comes to issuing a definitive post-#MeToo statement.) But right through to its glorious closing images, it's also clearly the work of a septuagenarian who just wants his acid reflux to settle down and to be able to get a decent sleep at nights. It's body horror that goes beyond the bodily to the acutely, sometimes sublimely personal.
The most conspicuous (and thus most telling) design elements on screen are what we might call bugbeds - insectoid sarcophagi apparently ported across from the adjacent universe of 1991's Naked Lunch so that sufferers like Viggo Mortensen's performance artist Saul Tenser, cursed with this subdermal sprouting, can get a few hours of kip. Tenser can at least channel his pain into art, and here's where Cronenberg the grisly showman steps up, staging gruey setpieces in which the artist's assistant/lover Caprice (Léa Seydoux) performs public surgeries to pluck these bonus organs from her man's gaping torso using a skeletal version of those grappling hooks used to pick up knock-off Minions in amusement arcades. Crucial to note, at this juncture, that Saul is positioned as the sane one here. Beyond the operating table, which affords him some measure of control over his condition, his oeuvre attracts all manner of kooks, weirdos and sociopaths, from Kristen Stewart as an awestruck National Organ Registry underling who insists "Surgery is the new sex" to Scott Speedman - continuing to atone for those bland choices forced upon him in his twenties - as the father of a young plastic-eater murdered by his mother in a subplot that recalls the gender wars of 1979's The Brood. Your heart soon goes out to poor old Viggo, who spends the entire film on the verge of coughing up a hairball that could be a second pancreas, retreats under a hood and mask into the corner of every other scene, and gives the impression of a man who sorely wishes everyone would stop trying to tear him to shreds. You might also wonder whether Saul Tenser is a stand-in for a filmmaker of a certain age, trying to make art while putting up with aches, pains, varyingly minor surgeries and - worst of all - people with their own strange ideas of what his art should be.
I stress the conditional because this Crimes is itself a work of uncommon plasticity, constantly shifting beneath our gaze: there's no one way of looking at it, and narratively Cronenberg gives himself four or five directions he could go in at any time. The dead-child business is something of a pretext, prompting Caprice to try and redefine the parameters of her relationship with Saul, and the camera to waltz off after two minxy assassins, hellbent on snuffing even those mutations of life that appear before us. Those beds look bespoke, but otherwise this isn't the most expensive-looking Cronenberg production - the money's gone on making these interiors appear as begrimed and murky, as besmirched by pollution, as the characters' bodies. We're back to the depopulated, underfunded worlds Cronenberg built early in his career, with one or two extremities that the master craftsman he became might have sheared off with extra drafts or cuts. (Some of its nudity struck me as gratuitous, but equally it offers the advantage of flesh that hasn't been pierced or gouged.) He's a funnier filmmaker now, though - more alert to the strains of perverse, sicko or just plain droll comedy running through his work - and the new movie incubates a handful of great Cronenberg images: a woman smiling ecstatically as what looks like a mini pizza slicer is taken to her foot, a man with a dozen ears dotting his chest like acne dancing to thumping techno. (It must be hell when Westlife come on the radio.) I was aware of some lukewarm critical responses going in, but Crimes of the Future succeeds in being properly weird when it wants to be. It's just possible another filmmaker would have an idea like this, but no-one else would have leant into it this hard, pushed it as far, or had the assurance to pursue it in so many directions at once. I was tempted to say Cronenberg seems on fine form coming out of lockdown - arguably better form than most of his contemporaries - were it not that Mortensen pays the same compliment to Stewart in the movie itself. Her response? "That's a very dangerous form to be in."
Crimes of the Future is now playing in selected cinemas.