In David Cronenberg's 'Crimes of the Future,' Bodies Have Evolved Beyond Sex
The new movie from the master of body horror asks if surgery is the new sex.
David Cronenberg, master of on-screen corporeal manipulation, has always been preoccupied with flesh. "All hail the new flesh," Debbie Harry coos in Videodrome. "You can't penetrate beyond society's sick, gray fear of the flesh," Jeff Goldblum's scientist Seth Brundle madly declares in The Fly. Now—after a detour into slick, surreal thrillers like his 2014 Hollywood satire Maps to the Stars—Cronenberg's back and digging beneath the skin in his new film Crimes of the Future, opening up bodies and rooting around inside. Crimes is classic Cronenberg: a sci-fi fable about evolution, complete with fleshy incisions.
Cronenberg is aware how self-referential this piece, which is debuting at his old stomping grounds of Cannes, is. He uses the exact title he deployed in 1970, but not remaking that film, about a world without adult women, but the 2022 Crimes is arguably emotionally chillier and visually neater. His frequent collaborator Viggo Mortensen stars as Saul Tenser, a performance artist who grows new organs only to have them tattooed and then removed by his partner Caprice, a former trauma surgeon portrayed by Léa Seydoux. Saul's life is regulated by a series of primordial-looking devices that aid him in sleeping and eating, shifting his body around to placate his roiling entrails. For their shows, Saul lays in a machine called a Sark, formerly used for autopsies. Caprice plays the controls on her stomach as she opens him up, almost fondling herself as she does.
In the vague North America of Crimes of the Future, human bodies have become immune to most forms of pain, so surgeries are performed in darkened alleyways and in dimly lit warehouses where spectators booze and gawk as if Marina Abramovic were on display. Simultaneously, some like Saul have begun to grow new organs, mostly vestigial, but the threat that they could become functional looms, meaning that these people would become something beyond their species. These unfamiliar innards are cataloged by two eager bureaucrats, Wippet (Don McKellar) and Timlin (Kristen Stewart, squeaking like a nervous mouse all while fluttering her eyes).
At the same time, there's another mystery haunting the narrative. In the jarring opening moments, a mother murders her young son after he begins chowing down on a garbage can. She leaves the body for her ex (Scott Speedman) to find. Eventually, the corpse and his father cross paths with Saul, offering a new path forward for human existence.
The plot slinks around like the movements of Mortensen, covered in a hood like a noir monk. Though Cronenberg has talked up the movie's gross-out qualities, explaining that he expects walkouts, he has crafted something that lures its audience into an unsettling acceptance of physical maiming. While your tolerance may depend on how comfortable you are seeing skin split open, arguably more disconcerting is the way Mortensen struggles for air throughout his performance, clearing his throat which seems perpetually blocked from the changes within his skeleton. His body seems to be strangling itself, a sensation that is more terrifying than any artificial implement digging into his body. It's a welcome performance from an actor who is best when he digs into his own strangeness.
Cronenberg's aloofness in photographing the reveal of innards also translates to Crimes of the Future's approach toward sexuality. The trailer teases Stewart whispering "surgery is the new sex," which proves frustratingly true. There's an eroticism to the way the characters react to how they can reshape their forms with eager, wanting eyes, but Crimes of the Future is, at the same time, deeply asexual. Stewart's Timlin is a tightly wound ball of horniness, wanting to break free, but she is never allowed the chance. The world has become too desensitized to indulge. In Cronenberg's Crash, based on the J.G. Ballard novel, he explored a community turned on by car wrecks, which represent the melding of mechanics and flesh. In Crimes of the Future, his characters have evolved further; they no longer need human sexual touch, content with the sensation of slitting open their own skins and watching others do the same.
This means that Crimes of the Future is a deliberately cold film. The viscera is less visceral. There are indeed practical effects at play, but the meticulousness with which Cronenberg films the surgeries almost takes on a CG gauze. And yet it's still thrilling to be back inside his mind, asking questions about what we are and what we will become.