David Cronenberg‘s Crimes of the Future, which I caught last night, is basically a play — a dialogue-driven, restricted-locale chamber piece. I felt respect and fascination — the scheme is nothing if not disciplined — and there’s never any doubt that you’re watching a thoughtful, rigorously sculpted effort by a grade-A auteur.

But (and I liked this aspect) it’s quite removed from the kind of gross-out horror film aesthetic that your midnight-movie crowd might enjoy. It’s not elevated horror but a kind of perversely erotic body-probe mood piece, and if you’re the kind of viewer who’s into mad energy and geysers of cinematic pizazz and gooey gore for its own sake, the likely reaction is going to be less along the lines of “holy shit!” and more in the vein of “uhm…what?”

Remove the physical-effects stuff — bizarre surgical slicings, erotic body penetration, superfluous internal organ removal — and the seaside, small-hamlet, sound-stage setting (it was shot in Athens), and you’re left with a presentation that could have been staged at Manhattan’s Cherry Lane theatre or…whatever, on Philco Playhouse back in the early to mid ’50s.

Set in a bizarre future in which pain has been eliminated (hence the various surgeries and excavations without anesthetics) and people are growing strange organs in their chest and stomach cavities, Crimes focuses on a performance-artist couple (Viggo Mortensen‘s “Saul Tenser”‘s and Léa Seydoux‘s “Caprice”) whose show involves the removal of said organs before paying audiences.

Did I mention that Caprice is into tattoo-ing Saul’s organs? (She is, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out why or to what end.) And the hanging, tentacled, oyster-like bed devices that Saul sleeps or meditates in, and a scene in which he and Caprice (naked as jaybirds) share some kind of sexual communion? And that you need to chew on the concept of “Accelerated Evolution Syndrome”?

The main thing is that these flesh slicings and subsequent icky probes are a turn-on for all concerned. You’ve read this before, but the film’s most quoted line is “surgery is the new sex.”

A secondary couple (Don McKellar‘s “Wippet” and Kristen Stewart‘s “Timlin”) are investigators at the National Organ Registry. Admirers of Saul and Caprice, they’re both tingling with anticipation about watching their act.

The key plot element is about Saul deciding whether to include in the show an autopsy of a recently murdered young boy — a kid who had become some kind of plastic-eating mutant. I’ll leave out mentioning his killer, but the boy’s father (Yorgos Karamihos), a guy who eats purple chocolate bars with curious chemical components, is the one pimping the autopsy to Saul.

Cronenberg wrote Crimes of the Future almost a quarter-century ago — in 1998 — and in a 5.23 interview with IndieWire’s Eric Kohn insisted “that he hadn’t changed a word of his original draft when production resources finally came together last year,” Kohn writes.

Cronenberg: “The human condition is the subject of my filmmaking and all art. Right now, these are things that are intriguing in terms of where people are and how they’re living.”

The subhead of Kohn’s article states that Cronenberg “elaborate[s] on the [film’s] complex themes,” and yet at no point in the piece do Kohn or Cronenberg even mention, much less discuss, a somewhat related present-day parallel — the fact that over the last few years gender ideology has brought about surgical alterations in young bodies — puberty blockers, breast removals, genital surgery, other transitional procedures.

Bill Maher discussed this trend last weekend (“We’re literally experimenting on children”), and these guys didn’t even touch upon this aspect?

I’m not saying there’s a direct metaphorical connection here or that organ-removal performance art and surgical gender modification are in the same ballpark, but they’re certainly in the same league.

Kohn #1: “Like so much of Cronenberg’s work, the scenario evades precise interpretations even as it amounts to a remarkable meditation on identity.” Like gender identity, right?

Kohn #2: “The focus is the interplay of physicality and technology unique to the 21st century.” Yeah, I’d kinda say so.

Cronenberg: “Of course, the whole ‘body is reality’ thing is very real for me. Things that affect the human body are very basic, primitive and essential.”

Crimes of the Future is first-rate, must-see Cronenberg, but cinematically it’s very confined and physical-effects-driven. As experimental envelope-pushers go, it’s a lot smarter and more concentrated than the run-of-the-mill. It opens stateside on 6.3.