Greetings again from the darkness. So, what happens when society evolves to the point that pain barely exists? Well, of course, people will then desire pain for pleasure and will go to extremes to experience the new forbidden bruised fruit. Anyone familiar with filmmaker David Cronenberg’s 40+ year career is already anticipating ‘what else’ the master of ‘body horror’ and twisted provocations will add to the proceedings. And the answer is … plenty.
Viggo Mortensen stars as Saul Tenser, and Lea Seydoux co-stars as Caprice, his performance art partner with benefits (such as they may be). If you’ve ever wondered what a second career for a trauma surgeon might look like, well Caprice’s role in the live shows is to first tattoo and then remove the newest organ that Saul’s body has generated – all while the appreciative audience looks on as if Picasso were painting or Edith Piaf were singing. Wait, what? His body grows new organs? Yes, Cronenberg has set this in a future where a segment of the population has an evolved digestive system and mutations, pain has been mostly eradicated, and Saul’s body grows new organs that may or may not have a legitimate function – they’re never left in the body long enough to find out because it’s Show time!
An opening sequence features a young boy’s inexplicable action, which leads his mother to an unfathomable next step. We are clearly in a (not so bright) future and Cronenberg delivers his first crime. That boy is linked to one of the many sub-plots in the film, though it’s Saul and Caprice who are at the center of most. A secretive government agency is responsible for registering all new organs, and it’s run by Wippet (Don McKellar) and Timlin (Kristen Stewart). Wippet worships Saul as an icon, while Timlin takes it a step further by whispering in Saul’s ear, “Surgery is the new sex.” Stewart plays polar opposite to her usual subtle on-camera style, delivering a humorous take on a curious, bird-like creature with tics and a lack of social graces.
Outstanding supporting work comes from Scott Speedman, Welket Bungue, Tanaya Beatty, and Nadia Litz. I’ll say little else about these characters or their story lines, because this film works best as you uncover each layer for yourself. A general description of the film would be what happens when anatomy and art collide with science-fiction. One can easily draw connective dotted lines between this Cronenberg film and many of his earlier ones. It has the bizarre sensuality of CRASH (1996), a nod to THE FLY (1986), common ground with EXISTENZ (1999), a line from DEAD RINGERS (1988), and social commentary in line from both VIDEODROME (1983) and SCANNERS (1981). This is Viggo Mortensen’s fifth collaboration with Cronenberg, but surely the first where he’s said, “I’m not very good at old sex.”
Carol Spier’s signature Production Design plays a significant part in the film, and best I can tell, she has worked on each of Cronenberg’s films since 1981. The two Canadians make a good team. It’s been 8 years since Cronenberg’s last film, and the 79-year-old filmmaker is already in pre-production for his next. The Inner Beauty Pageant and Accelerated Evolution Syndrome are elements within this film, and as you would expect, he delivers visual effects that will stick with you. That said, nothing is over the top, and if anything, the cult filmmaker is on pretty good behavior, though he fully expects “walk outs” within the first few minutes. While I’m not sure the twist is even a twist, this is vintage Cronenberg offering no apologies while choosing to leave us with yet more of his provocations … “don’t spill”.
Opens in theaters on June 3, 2022