Crimes of the Future review: S&M kitsch and an arch Kristen Stewart result in mid-tier Cronenberg

Dir: David Cronenberg. Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux, Kristen Stewart, Don McKellar, Scott Speedman. 18, 108 mins

A little boy is having his supper. He munches away happily on a plastic bin in the bathroom. This is one of the typically disconcerting early scenes in Canadian body horror maestro David Cronenberg’s very grotesque new film. This kid has the uncanny ability to digest plastic. He has been created that way as an experiment into whether humanity can start feeding on its own industrial waste.

Crimes of the Future shares a title with a film Cronenberg made way back near the start of his career, in 1970. It has all the traits that fans look for in its director’s work, full of provocative ideas and very lurid imagery. But the storytelling is cold and detached. At times, the narrative is hard to follow. This isn’t at all a smooth ride.

Back in 1996, Cronenberg’s JG Ballard adaptation Crash was a succès de scandale at Cannes, provoking walkouts and absurdly censorious reviews from British critics, accusing the director of moral depravity. At this year’s festival in May, there were one or two walkouts during the film’s first press screening, but the audience response was relatively muted. No one was taken by surprise when surgical needles and blades began penetrating and cutting human flesh, or scooping out body parts. They’d been well warned in advance.

Viggo Mortensen stars as performance artist Saul Tenser. Early on, he is brought out of a long slumber by his beautiful and mysterious assistant, Caprice (Léa Seydoux). He’s a little stiff and weary – a Merlin-like Magus in a black cape who speaks in a growl. Saul likes to get new organs inserted into his body, to see if they grow or simply turn cancerous. His performances involve him having the new growths removed in front of an audience.

Something is going wrong with evolution. Humans no longer feel pain. We’re in a world in which, as one character puts it, “surgery is the new sex”. Two investigators at the National Organ Registry – played in arch fashion by Kristen Stewart and Don McKellar – are intrigued by Saul’s experiments in re-moulding and manipulating his body. Timlin (Stewart) is very attracted to Saul but, as he tells her during one of the film’s most absurd scenes, he is “not very good at the old sex”. Characters here get their kicks by licking at open wounds, not by kissing or cuddling.

In its lesser moments, Crimes of the Future is clunky and very close to self-parody. The film’s best scenes tend to be its most extreme ones, such as the ritualistic autopsy of a child, whose body is stripped open, his strangely shaped innards removed and placed delicately on trays.

The general mood of eeriness is enhanced by Howard Shore’s discordant music, while a seductive and mischievous Seydoux brings an air of Morgan le Fay-like mystery to her role. Cronenberg, meanwhile, makes nods in the direction of classical tragedy. A grief-stricken mother murders her own child in an act of fury against the father. This father is prepared to sacrifice his own son’s body parts in the name of scientific progress, or at least of entertainment.

Crimes of the Future is likely to be regarded as an intriguing but relatively minor late work in its director’s oeuvre. He is again exploring familiar themes. The film is highly stylised, shot almost entirely in dimly lit interiors. It has an air of gothic S&M-style kitsch. There is also a lot of nudity, but Cronenberg depicts bodies as if they’re synthetic casings for all the pulsating organs underneath. Those are his real points of interest. This is a film rich in ideas but with very little tension or passion. At times, it’s more like a cerebral art gallery installation piece than a full-blooded dramatic movie.

‘Crimes of the Future’ is in cinemas from 9 September