One of the first images we see in David Cronenberg’s new film Crimes of the Future is a small boy eating a plastic bin, foaming at the mouth. He does not seem to register that this is unusual, but his mother clearly feels differently: she responds by smothering him with a pillow. Opening with an act of infanticide might suggest a deeply disturbing film, but it is in fact relatively tame, especially when compared to Cronenberg’s earlier works. There are indeed graphic scenes of surgery sans anaesthetic, but we learn that in this world the vast majority of humans no longer feel pain, and so it is also relatively painless for the audience.
There lies the crux of the matter, and why it is important not to have misleading expectations. Early reports that this was a return to the body horror of early Cronenberg, whilst not entirely untrue, were somewhat exaggerated. Cronenberg himself said he expected walkouts at Cannes, but if that happened it wouldn’t have been in response to gore.
Crimes of the Future takes place in a dingy dystopian world in which certain humans have developed what is known as ‘accelerated evolution syndrome’ causing their bodies to develop new organs with unknown functions. The shadowy authorities, represented by a shabby ‘organ registry’ and a detective from ‘New Vice’, wish to clamp down on this, requiring all new organs to be removed and documented in order to maintain control over the direction of humanity’s evolution. We follow a man named Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), who has the condition and in collaboration with his partner Caprice (Lea Seydoux) stages avant-garde performances in which his new organs are surgically removed in front of audiences.
There is much talk throughout the film about what exactly the ‘meaning’ of these new organs are, and how to respond to a rebelling body through art. Most of this plays out in scenes of almost Socratic dialogue, rather bluntly laying out themes in a way which many will find enervating, but which I found somewhat tantalising. It’s during these scenes as well that we get the slogans that have come to be a Cronenberg trademark and which go some way to defining the film: ‘surgery is the new sex’, and, on a television screen, ‘BODY IS REALITY’. The former particularly echoes the ‘new flesh’ of Videodrome (also referenced in Tenser’s stomach crevice which Caprice uses for oral sex) and also allows for one of the film’s brief but not infrequent moments of humour in which Tenser tells one of the organ registrars (Kristen Stewart) that he’s ‘not so good at the old sex’.
The focus of the film snaps into place once the boy from the beginning returns to the story, becoming part of Tenser’s work and allowing Cronenberg’s ideas about humanity’s relationship to our modern environment to flourish. The film has a mournful quality to it, almost eulogising about one form of humanity being superseded by another. This is highlighted by the decision (likely motivated by financial incentives) to shoot in Athens, with all its baggage as a pinnacle of the old world, this setting emphasizes the film’s world as one that is dying.
Cronenberg’s films have long been popular among queer and trans audiences, in part due to his longstanding interest in the limits and adaptations of the body. The discussions on rebellious bodies and what constitutes a ‘provocative body’ in Crimes of the Future were particularly compelling as a trans viewer. It’s remarkable in some ways that the screenplay was written twenty years ago and left unaltered given how its concerns about the politicisation of the body are so unfortunately echoed today (as well as the policing of trans bodies, there is also the analogue of abortion rights), although it undeniably could have done with some polishing. Unlike the recently released We’re All Going To The World’s Fair, this does not wed its ideas about the body especially well to cinematic images, often feeling like it would work better as a book. But the ideas are tantalising enough that it still remains a satisfying and, indeed, a transgressive work.