A man dressed in black lies back in a chair while a woman in white with cropped hair appears to examine him.
This image is from the official trailer for “Crimes of the Future,” distributed by NEON.

In the future, humans are evolving, the feeling of pain is disappearing and surgery is the new sex. In the world of David Cronenberg’s (“The Fly”) new film “Crimes of the Future” — releasing in the United States after premiering last week in competition at the Cannes Film Festival — the human body is everyone’s obsession. The famed director returns to the body horror genre that he is generally associated with, but this time, Cronenberg uses it for a different, more subdued goal.

The film stars Viggo Mortensen (“Green Book”) and Léa Seydoux (“The French Dispatch”) as Saul Tenser and Caprice. They are performance artists whose act consists of Caprice cutting Saul open to remove new organs that have grown inside his body. People just can’t seem to get enough of their act as an erotic piece of art, including two members of the National Organ Registry trying to investigate Saul’s condition.

One of these investigators, Timlin, is played brilliantly by Kristen Stewart (“Spencer”), whose incredibly mannered performance creates a character who makes scenes more on edge than they otherwise would be, even if she isn’t at the center. After witnessing one of Saul’s performances, she becomes infatuated with him, telling Saul many times how much she would love for him to cut her open as part of his act. 

This leads to one of the best scenes in the film, in which Timlin comes on to Saul in her office. The sexual tension created by the movement of the actors — Stewart backs Mortensen into the corner until he finally lets her get closer to him — as well as the way Stewart uses her eyes and lips to nervously fidget is remarkably palpable, and it makes the payoff at the end of the scene funny, euphoric and heartbreaking. 

Cronenberg’s film is more intimate than it is horrific. Gruesome body horror imagery is used sparingly and often not in the context of trying to terrify the audience. Instead, it is used as a way to show the characters connecting on a deeper, more carnal level. “Crimes of the Future” is incredibly effective in this regard, and while it maintains an aura of creepiness, it also captures the interplay of pain and pleasure in a way that can be deeply moving at times.

“Crimes of the Future” wants to tackle some big ideas, and the many threads it attempts to deal with are successful to varying degrees. One of the main themes of the film seems to be evolution and progress. While there are those — like Saul and Caprice — who want human evolution to take its natural course, only interfering in the name of their art, there are characters in the film who want to stop this progress from occurring, and others who want to force progress by any means necessary. 

Cronenberg appears to be trying to parse through an incredibly divisive political climate, but he centers himself right in the middle. This has its pros and cons. It means he can sit back and criticize each side of the issue for their hypocrisies, but by not taking a side, it almost feels a bit too safe. The ending, as a result, feels rushed as it appears to be coming to a firm stance but stops before it can delve too deep into the issue. Cronenberg seems to want the audience to come to its own conclusions, but it leads to the film losing a bit of bite.

The film is even less successful in its exploration of themes of bodily autonomy and privacy. A plot line involving a father of a murdered child wanting to use his child’s corpse to do an autopsy in one of Saul and Caprice’s art exhibitions isn’t given enough time to be explored thoroughly. The father uses his son to push forward his pro-human evolution cause, and while Caprice is allowed some moments to express the pain she feels going through with the performance, this storyline seems to be used far more to explore the other themes expressed above.

That being said, “Crimes of the Future” is one of the best films of the year so far. Reports of both walkouts and standing ovations at Cannes perfectly encapsulates what this film is all about. It is very purposeful in its use of grotesque imagery, and while that may put off some audience members, it makes it an incredibly worthwhile experience for those that can make it through. It contains lots of big ideas and leaves you with plenty to think about as you leave the theater. In a summer movie season that will be full of entertainment high in production values but low on artistic merit, this film is a refreshing change of pace. 

Daily Arts Writer Mitchel Green can be reached at mitchgr@umich.edu.