An hour of this was enough for me. Which was a shame because it started so well. A trio of short, sharp, scenes – boy on a seashore with a rusted capsized ship in the background, said boy munch on a plastic bin, said boy suffocated in his sleep by this mother – set up an intriguing premise. Whose significance takes forever to resurface.
Meanwhile, we are thrust into the world of underground performance art based on the notion that surgery is sex or, to put it another way, sex is surgery (the characters seem to think this is a point worthy of dispute). Buried deep is a clever idea: if human beings are pain free, what perversities will they dream up? If they can cut themselves open with impunity, will they just indulge?
And if tumours, rather than being the cause of death, are celebrated, will human beings engage in a competition to see who can grow the best/worst one. There is an actual such competition, called the “inner beauty” contest, presumably an alternative to the Miss World beauty pageants. As if the Alien that used to burst free out of stomachs and caused such terror was now being deliberately grown and harvested for the purpose of entertainment/art.
Our guides into this bizarre world are Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), the incubator of such phantoms, and his partner former surgeon Caprice (Lea Seydoux) whose job is to tattoo whatever on his unique internal organs before they are summoned in front of audience with a flourish. We know he is Saul Tenser because every time he turns up at a door he is welcomed with “Saul Tenser.”
This might work as black comedy but not as serious drama. I call it drama because it certainly ain’t horror. The whole point of horror is to make the audience jump or at least wince. I’m a very good audience for genuine horror because I jump at the slightest thing and won’t event watch surgical reality television programs. But this looked more like a special effects festival to me rather than something that had a chance of scaring the pants off me.
And in real life – as in real Hollywood life – if there was any chance of humans being able to evolve in tis fashion you can bet your Hollywood dollar that the government would already be backing such a scheme and the story would be about an intrepid couple uncovering such goings-on.
Anyway, a creepy guy called Wippet (Don McKellar) for no reason at all runs an underground “organ registry” and whose only purpose it seems to me is to have, as in the best horror pictures, an even creepier assistant Timlin (Kirsten Stewart). So, eventually, after wading through tons of boring examples of creative scalpel, with bodies sculpted into all sorts of configurations including a job lot of ears, we come to the crux.
The killer mother has donated her child’s boy to the father Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman) who is bidding to become the all-time king nutjob by performing a public autopsy on the child, the mother’s assumption being that Lang has somehow given birth to a new kind of human. But, to be honest, by this point I couldn’t care less.
Part of the problem was that all the actors had been allowed to overact. Every face was a gurn fest, every word endless chewed over, as if they had all decided this was a chance for Oscar glory, Timlin the worst example, every line she uttered was just excruciating. In fact, it there was any entertainment to be had, it was to see which actor could put on the greatest show of tics or utter the worst mangled words.
I would even argue that director David Cronenberg, often deservedly acclaimed as a “visionary” director, deserves better than this, except that he’s the cause of the entire mess. Despite the endless exposition it’s still hard to make out key elements. Is Saul in genuine pain, he sleeps in some kind of neo-skeleton contraption with the long arms monsters used to have before special effects grew up, or is he conjuring up pain because that’s the kind of perverse person he is in a pain-free world. If he’s not pain free, how could he possibly endure his body being sliced open to extract the organs? Don’t bother supplying answers, I couldn’t care less.
I generally make a point of not walking out of movies – maybe three in total in the last five decades of moviegoing – and I left not because I was shocked but because I was bored rigid. I’m giving this one star because I left more than halfway through. If I’d waited till the end it might have been elevated to two stars – or I might have been tempted to give it no stars at all.