This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Will Sloan’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
In his intro before the screening, David Cronenberg told the audience that we would "get it" within the first 10 minutes and that we were free to leave after that, but if we wanted to stay he'd be back for Q&A. At the Q&A, he said that there's no point explaining the movie because there's nothing to explain. We can assume he was being facetious (I've read Cronenberg on Cronenberg, I know he can talk when he wants to), but there's something in what he said that conveys the spirit of this enterprise, which is a place for Cronenberg to linger in the sorts of images and ideas that get him buzzing, and fuck you if you don't like it. It also liberated me to trust my own instincts on the movie, making it possible to come up with some preliminary thoughts once I got past how deeply uningratiating I found it.
The movie is, among other things, a parable about artistic creation in which the idea of splattering your guts on a canvas is literalized. Viggo Mortensen is a man who can rapidly generate new internal organs, and Lea Seydoux is his partner who removes them in front of audiences in acts of performance art. These performances have made Mortensen a famous figure in a dystopian future where human evolution has made such medical abnormalities not uncommon. There are other performance artists in this world, including a man with ears all over his body who has sewn his eyes and mouth shut, but Mortensen sees him as a bit of a gimmicky poseur (as others have noted, it's hard not to imagine the real Cronenberg feeling something similar about, say, Titane, even though he swears he likes it). Mortensen and Seydoux find themselves caught between a few different factions: the National Organ Registry, embodied by snivelling bureaucrats Don McKellar and Kristen Stewart, who seek to understand and classify all medical abnormalities (are these people a metaphor for the critical commentariat?); a government agent (Welket Bungué) who Mortensen is in secret contact with; and an underground collective of plastic-eating mutants who have become one with societal decay (when we see Mortensen struggling to eat a plastic candybar towards the end, is the suggestion that even he has succumbed to becoming artistically compromised?). By the way: Stewart, who is powerfully attracted to Mortensen, says at several points, "Surgery is the new sex" - a very Cronenbergian thing to say although I'm not sure I quite "get it" in this context.
Filming was done in Athens for budgetary reasons, though Cronenberg said that the city's vast history and conspicuous decline informed the movie's decaying atmosphere. Scenes unfold in stark, empty interiors and ugly, crumbling exteriors. There is little sense of how people live in these spaces, or how they fit together in an ecosystem, or that a big and functioning society exists outside of these rooms. The cast members give stylized performances that do not always feel in synch with each other - a sensation heightened by Cronenberg's decision to often isolate actors in the frame in off-kilter compositions.
The movie is talky, dramatically inert, difficult to follow, and its gory scenes are presented so coolly that they didn't really get under my skin like I was expecting. I'm not knocking the movie, I'm just describing it. In the classic Siskel & Ebert review of Naked Lunch, Siskel said that he didn't enjoy it but was glad he saw, while Ebert said he was glad he saw it but he didn't enjoy it. In the case of Crimes of the Future I agree with Siskel.