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David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future

A nightmare of painless wounds

Surgery is the new sex it is stated in David Cronenberg’s latest exploration of the trajectory of human existence and its consequence. Nearly a decade since his last film, he returns to the surface of what is called body horror—for which his name stands like no other—while moving beneath this façade away from the horror, shock and, above all, the pain, in order to formulate his question about the transformation of the human condition in a more eclectic variety than ever before.

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Nov 15, 2022

© Nikos Nikolopoulos

In its idea of the future, humanity undergoes accelerated evolution syndromes, as the film calls it. As a result, the perception of physical pain disappears and infections are overcome. In this fourth collaboration with Cronenberg, Viggo Mortensen plays the performance artist Saul Tenser, one of the few remaining who can not only feel pain, but is also subdued by it. Tenser is constantly growing new organs, which is life-threatening for him. With the help of his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux), however, he makes use of this threat by cutting them out in front of an gathered audience. This art is celebrated as resistance against the will of the body. Surrounded by spectators, he lies in an organic-looking coffin as his partner, remote-controlling the machines, cuts him open in an avant-garde performance.

No matter how much is sliced, disfigured and viscera are torn out, Cronenberg, for all the explicitness of what is shown, takes away the feeling of pain from us just as much as he does from his characters. By disconnecting body and suffering, the film creates a new context for the violence on display, which, far from shocking us, allows us to ask questions about its meaning.

The film begins with the image of a stranded wreck in the background, which resembles the carcass of a whale. In the foreground sits a small boy who, as we see a short time later, is eating a plastic bucket. We learn that he was born with a digestive tract capable of processing plastic.

The National Organ Authority as well as the police unit—the New Vice—observe the inner-body alterations. They want to prevent a new breed of human that is no longer human. Monsters, like the child, who are ‘outer space’, in the words of someone in the film. In this case, a being that feeds on plastic. Derived from the Latin monstrum for sign of divine omen, the child represents both a warning but also an evasion.

© 2022 Neon Rated. All rights reserved.

“Here we have the anatomy of today’s pathology”

— Caprice played by Léa Seydoux

Body is reality

Just as in Videodrome, the mutation of the body coincides with the transformation of the inner self, in both senses of the word. Here, the body is also an expression as well as a confrontation with the deeds of the past, which, if you will, lead to crimes of the future—the destruction of the environment and voracious greed are themes that Cronenberg illustrates in an overstated and emblematic sense, yet without occupying a moral high ground.

Like the operation as performance art, the film also takes on a more avant-garde appearance than is usually seen in Cronenberg’s work. To some extent, the staging of some scenes is evocative of a theatre stage. While the pessimistic texture of dirt and the buzzing of flies determine the pervasive aesthetics of this dystopia, the things we see seem artificial, almost plasticky. Although the gestalt of the technology featured is organic and in perpetual motion as if it were breathing, it also appears, like its surroundings, to be unreal and merely an imitation of the flesh. Appropriately, these products also have catchy corporate names such as OrchidBed or BreakFaster chair.

Looming over everything is a mood of decay—all appears doomed and humankind as a species finding itself in the final stages of its survival. Recurring is the theme about preserving the nature of humanity against its indispensable assimilation into its synthetic environment.

Where is the space left for biological evolution if man keeps making his nature his own? Is he obliged to force his own evolution in order to survive in a world that he himself has destroyed? What is then left of being human?

Much like Saul’s organs, the film is also slippery at times and is difficult to grasp due to its wide array of questions alongside smaller, unexplored subplots. One may regard this as a weakness or as a multitude of interlinking fragments building up a frame of a larger world. In this way, a cosmos full of metaphors is created. In this respect, and to Cronenberg’s general understanding, technology is prevalent as an extension of the human body. Saul’s bed, for instance, comes across as a cocoon whose tentacle-like arms literally attach themselves to his body to suppress his pain. With regard to the dehumanisation of the body, it is precisely the use of technology that raises parallels with our present, where it has long since become an extension of our being.

With the expansion of human possibilities, Cronenberg shows us a shift of desires. The old sex gives way to the new sex that climaxes intimacy. Being opened up and invaded as a symbol of the total exposure of one’s inner self is sensually enacted here. Mortensen and Seydoux succeed in expressing human yearning and self-disclosure through their interplay of distance and physicality.

Crimes of the Future is slow, meditative, and the allure is less in the immediate seeing than in the deferred thinking about it. The world that Cronenberg creates is a disconcerting nightmare, with a faint light of hope at the end of its existence. For Cronenberg, the body is an ever central part of human existence—it makes us who we are—body is reality, and he is revealing the most beautiful thing about it to be the recognition and willingness to change.

Alternate takes

Written by

Quite a jarring return to themes that align with his perceived forte, Crimes of the Future finds David Cronenberg pondering the next step in human evolution and who the collective whole of humanity, or certain forces among it, will allow to oversee the direction this step will entail.

The film deals with what sounds like Lamarckian evolutionary proceedings of people growing new organs inside their own bodies seemingly randomly but also perhaps as part of a certain willpower of the self to create them and the film then takes that even further into culturally and societally very relevant directions with the focus on plastic waste and plastic digestion, also raising the question of what role surgery plays in all this.

The music is consistently ominous and provides at least one very engaging standout synth moment in a unique dance performance and the music is what makes us all ears about it, even though the scene's significance itself is incredibly minor in the overall scheme of things. Howard Shore has scored close to all of Cronenberg's films and he does a good job here as well, imbuing the film with a kind of reverence in the organ-heavy sections as well as with a decidedly futuristic aspect in the more synth-dominated portions.

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