During an early scene in Crimes of the Future, David Cronenberg’s latest film, the performance artist Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) reclines on a chaise longue as Timlin (Kristen Stewart) questions him.
“Surgery is sex, isn’t it?”
“Mhm. You know it is. Surgery is the new sex.”
Saul, like a large segment of the population, is experiencing “Accelerated Evolution Syndrome,” which makes its victims grow novel organs that seem to serve no purpose other than cluttering up one’s abdominal cavity. He has just been vivisected inside a sarcophagal machine designed to perform autopsies, operated by the ravishing Caprice (Léa Seydoux) as the main attraction of her and Saul’s world-famous performance art show. A former trauma surgeon, Caprice laparoscopically tattoos the superfluous organs that Saul grows so prolifically, and then removes them in front of audiences of dour arterati. She is protective of Saul and distrusts Timlin, a National Organ Registry bureaucrat tasked with cataloguing the strange new organs people are growing.
“Does there have to be new sex?” asks Saul. “Yes. It’s time,” says Timlin. “When I was watching Caprice cut into you, I wanted you to be cutting into me. That’s when I knew.”
Timlin is far from the first to reach this conclusion. In Cronenberg’s future, humans no longer feel pain—except sometimes in their sleep—and have discovered a narcotizing pleasure in mutual mutilation. The film’s many images of characters carving sensuously into one another with surgical instruments are uncanny, grotesque, and brimming with meaning.
Although full-fledged pain is rare, discomfort is rampant. Crimes is set in a future not of technological marvels but of rust, decay, pollution, and creative exhaustion. Similar to the Tangiers/Interzone of Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991), the unnamed city where the action takes place feels dusty and poisoned. Worse, a mysterious digestive tract disorder is pervasive among those afflicted with Accelerated Evolution Syndrome. No longer capable of eating normal food without gagging, sufferers like Saul keep their food down by taking their meals in animate breakfast chairs that move in response to their discomfort.
As it turns out, the organs grown by Saul and others are part of a nascent organ system that will enable humans to consume plastics. The government’s New Vice unit, for which Saul is an undercover informant, is dead-set on keeping this a secret—dead-set, that is, on halting human evolution. Meanwhile, a cell of plastic-eating accelerationists are working against the government. Their leader, Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman), wants Saul to perform an autopsy on his young son during his and Caprice’s show, thereby revealing to the world the fully evolved, plastic-digesting organ system the boy was born with.
LifeFormWare, the nebulous company that produces Saul’s chair and his similarly animate bed, is maybe the Cronenbergiest feature of the film. The company’s agents—a pair of femme fatale repairwomen (Tanaya Beatty and Nadia Litz)—are underdeveloped as characters, but their actions ultimately provide rich thematic fodder. LifeFormWare has cornered the market on ameliorating the effects of Accelerated Evolution Syndrome; if the accelerationists succeed in their mission, their products will become obsolete. Brand-loyal to the point of erotic fixation, LifeFormWare’s agents will stop at nothing to safeguard its future.
Cronenberg has never shied from stating his themes explicitly, often incarnating abstract critiques of power and technology in deformations of human flesh. Crimes of the Future is no exception. Like Videodrome (1983) before it, Crimes exposes our tendency to create tools that pervert our humanity, as well as our tendency to rebel against their perverting force with yet more perversion. For venturing these insights Cronenberg has been accused of making “reactionary” art. “Cronenberg’s work has value, for me,” wrote Robin Wood, his most vehement critic, “precisely in that it crystallizes some of our society’s most negative attitudes—to physicality, to sexuality, to women, to all ideas of progress.” Other film critics, including those sharing Wood’s radical sexual politics, have defended Cronenberg; after all, how could work so obviously transgressive be reactionary? But Wood was correct: Cronenberg’s art, if not the man himself, is ineluctably reactionary, and Crimes may well be his most reactionary film to date.
Within the logic of the story-world, Accelerated Evolution Syndrome constitutes a heretofore unknown dynamism native to humanity; nothing essential to human nature is compromised. The villains intent on snuffing out evolutionary adaptation through technocratic means are battling against nature itself. They are, in the name of preserving human nature, redefining it according to arbitrary will. The film’s opening scene reveals just how morally disfiguring such redefining can be: a mother, believing her plastic-eating child to be an inhuman aberration, smothers him with a pillow.
Cronenberg’s depiction of a conspiracy between government and corporate interests to halt a natural human process will be familiar to observers of the transgender revolution. The Biden administration has promised “to direct the full force of the federal government” to protect children’s access to cross-sex hormones and “puberty blockers” originally designed to chemically castrate rapists. Pharmaceutical companies donate lavishly to gender activism, salivating at the prospect of untold thousands of children becoming dependent for life on the expensive drugs needed to tame their bodies’ recalcitrance. And business is booming for professional flesh-carvers thanks to the demand for “gender affirming” surgeries—including surgeries meant to nullify one’s gender entirely.
While ensuring the film will appeal to only a limited audience, the shock-and-awe grotesquery of Crimes of the Future is essential to the film’s reactionary heart, its transgression of transgression. But it also serves to mask the film’s eschewal of narrative tension. In a world so numbed by decadence and deadened nerve endings, the stakes for individual characters are often difficult to discern. Despite this aesthetic failure, Crimes succeeds as a complex meditation on the abolition of human nature and the eclipse of embodied sexuality. Cronenberg has given us a film that, like Kristen Stewart’s character Timlin, all but begs to be dissected.
Justin Lee is associate editor at First Things.
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