In Crimes of the Future, David Cronenberg’s latest film, bodies are changing. An undisclosed number of years into our future—or perhaps the film takes place in some parallel present, and in truth, such details seem unimportant—humans are mutating at alarming rates, to mysterious effect. New organs bloom, possessing unknown functions and strange designs. Pain neurons constantly fire with fervor for some; for others, they misfire with ecstatic pleasure. The world responds: governments track and dispose of tumorous flesh; corporations build machines to soothe frayed nerves; revolutionaries imagine the futures these transformations have opened up. And artists do what artists always do: they try to figure out what is beautiful about human beings, whatever they might be.
The film’s dual protagonists—Saul Tenser and Caprice, played by Viggo Mortensen and Léa Seydoux respectively—belong to this last camp. They are a performance-art duo, renowned for their markedly conservative—or, more precisely, conservationist—work. Tenser’s body constantly sprouts new, mysterious lumps of flesh. Racked by pain and requiring a special nerve-dampening machine to even attempt sleeping and eating, he loathes the anarchic revolts transforming a body that no longer feels like his. Together, Tenser and Caprice, who is a trained physician who once served as a trauma surgeon, use their art to reject this unruliness. In each show, in front of a live audience, Caprice publicly opens Tenser up and removes the invaders dotting his insides. What these two artists find beautiful about the human body is the promise of what it once was and can be again.
Whether Tenser and Caprice retain or discard this conservatism is the film’s central question. After all, not all their compatriots share it. Early in the film, Tenser attends a show by a conceptual artist and dancer named Klinek. The scene is introduced with a jarring cut to Klinek, who is an average and everyday man but for two striking features: his head possesses four extra ears, and more cover his body. A set of hands carefully sew his mouth and eyes shut as a recording intones: “It is time to stop seeing. It is time to stop speaking. It is time to listen.” Skittering, panicked house music leaps in; Klinek cocks his head and begins to dance.
Cronenberg lets us watch this display for some time. He has, through Klinek, created something wonderful. I smiled in the theater. A dense yet slippery film, Crimes of the Future had until that point (for my first time watching it, at least) felt rather draining. This moment registered as a restorative gift, a blessing of thumping bass and gleaming muscle, an idea made real, solid, so that it could vibrate with sonic force. At one point, we cut away for a few seconds, simply to watch someone slowly, lustily stab a knife deep into someone else’s calf and etch downwards.
After some time, the camera moves away, and the music grows soft. We watch a woman approach Tenser. “I don’t like the ears,” she says to him. “They’re cute, they’re striking, but a thousand ears is not good design. Surround sound?” This rhetorical question is posed with a withering inquisitiveness. After a pause, our nameless critic continues: “The extra ears don’t even work. They’re just for show.” Tenser, his eyes gleaming out of the balaclava he often wears (for mystique? for comfort?), asks: “How do you know?” She replies, with something more than mischief twitching up the corners of her mouth: “I’m Adrienne Berceau. I’m Klinek’s Biomorphology Coordinator. Don’t tell him I said this, but he’s better with the dancing than he is with the conceptual art.”
Such admonishment is the kind of thing moviegoers are tempted to nod and hum at, stroking our chins, noting that David Cronenberg is saying something about art. A director less determined to be intelligent would be satisfied with this. Not Cronenberg, who has, in his decades-long career, proven himself to be one of the most intelligent filmmakers of the present day.
What does Berceau mean by “conceptual”? Klinek has crafted a work about a transformation in human sensation, a bodily change that allows one to feel even more surrounded by sound than we already do. He is trying to demonstrate how this newness alters the way we move and the way we feel, the way our bodies are moved by feeling. Berceau is pointing out that Klinek’s biology doesn’t hold water—the ears don’t actually do anything. But so what? I mean, how is this a conceptual failure? It’s like a physicist snidely telling a poet enraptured by quantum mechanics that they’re not getting string theory quite right. Fine, but surely artists don’t need to accurately depict the world in order to make something meaningful. And it seems quite odd to treat this as a conceptual failure. We can treat Klinek’s performance like a hypothesis: If we did so transform, what would happen? After all, is art not capable of speculation? Is art not fantasy?
It seems Berceau could accuse Cronenberg, too, of a profound disinterest in human life as it “really” is, bewitched as he is by fantasies about human-fly hybrids and other such impossibilities. The brilliance of Crimes lies in its conviction that Klinek and Tenser do not exhaust the possibilities of either fantasy or realism.
Cronenberg’s films are animated by an obsessive desire to speculate about new forms of (in)human life. He makes movies about the terribly beautiful eruptions of new sensualities, new hungers, new metaphysics, new relations. This aesthetic mission announced itself in his first film, 1969’s Stereo, a dense treatise following a cluster of experimental subjects granted the power of telepathy. Cronenberg neurotically details the conceptual, psychological and metaphysical ramifications of his premise, determined to take deadly seriously how such a transformation would affect both the minutiae and the grand significance of human life.
This determination holds the whole of his corpus together. The transformation in question might be the kind that turns a mafia killing machine into a small-town father and back again (in 2005’s A History of Violence), or one that changes a scientist into a biological monstrosity (in 1986’s The Fly), or simply one wrought by the cataclysmic powers of love, which can drive a man insane (in 1988’s Dead Ringers). Each metamorphosis feels sacred in his hands, played out with a scientific precision indistinguishable from humanistic devotion. For his curiosity is no mere academic exercise. The films are animated by a profound love for and fascination with human life.
Crimes marks an odd moment in Cronenberg’s career. On first glance, his recent films—A History of Violence, Crash and Cosmopolis—lack the brutal physicality that made his name. Dubbed the progenitors of body horror, the subgenre of horror that centers on grotesque manipulations of human flesh, films like The Fly and The Brood focused on grandiose physical transformations, slowly and painstakingly tracking ooze and cracking bone as a human being becomes something new. But Dead Ringers, the last in Cronenberg’s dizzying cycle of eighties grotesqueries, seemed to mark an inward turn toward psychological transformation. Few of Cronenberg’s subsequent films could, on the face of it, be classified as body horror. Instead, they seem to study the way human lives change while within the same body: the way the same man can be both a loving father and a murderous killer, or the way a psychological trauma can utterly restructure one’s sexual desires. As such, many have deemed Crimes that most cumbersome of artistic shorthands: a “return to form.”
But this narrative is misleading. First, and most obviously, Cronenberg’s body horror has always entangled its physical transformations with psychological ones. In Rabid, a woman becomes ground zero for a zombie plague to which she is not only immune but from which she also draws inexplicable pleasure: it is the story of a woman’s sexual desire unleashed at last. In Videodrome, a man discovers a conspiracy to decimate the free will of the population through brain tumors developed by watching TV: it is the story of the devastation wrought by commodified sex and violence. In The Brood, a woman births monstrous children that stalk her former husband: it is the story of the way past relationships bubble up and alter present ones.
Less obviously, Cronenberg’s recent output has remained obsessed with bodies and their transformations. It’s just that these transformations have become less science-fictional. Cronenberg’s earlier films embraced a narrative inefficiency in their body horror, studying grotesquely unfamiliar bodies with a tortuous slowness. Later, his attention turned to the transformations wrought by an influx of estrogen and testosterone into the brain, or a gunshot: transformations wrought by the immediacies of sex and death. In these films, bouts of violence erupt as flashes of instantaneity in worlds that otherwise move with almost gentle languidness.
Crimes, like those recent predecessors, is all smooth, all seamless. Droned words spill out like mantras. The camera dollies slowly, almost on tiptoe, through compact and dusty architectures that are nigh-impossible to distinguish; the film feels like it takes place in a fungal grove, a massive neural network of clay and rusted metal rising from the earth. Human beings move slowly or not at all (I do not think a single person runs in the film); the choreographed serenity is only interrupted by the flailing limbs of a dying child.
But while Crimes does not mark a return to bodies and their transformations (Cronenberg never left), it does return to a particular kind of body undergoing a particular kind of transformation. Unlike the violent interruptions that pockmark Cosmopolis and Crash, here even blood runs slowly: blades cut flesh that only finds pleasure in the unfurling of skin, or perform autopsies on bodies living and dead, always moving with the precision of the sculptor’s chisel. The bodies change ponderously, and are sliced open slowly, the better to examine their fantastical disarrangements. Cronenberg’s camera lacks the urgent sense of horror that animated his earlier work. It has been replaced by a sense of languorous exhaustion.
In Ontology of the Accident, the philosopher Catherine Malabou describes the violence of the utter loss of a self: not the self’s evolution, but an event that annihilates its starting point, absolutely and unconditionally. This is the sort of violence whose victims do not experience it as violence because, after all, to experience an invasion as hostile is to retain some independence from it, however small. The experience of a complete psychic break—the kind suffered by the PTSD survivors and Alzheimer’s patients that Malabou takes as paradigm cases—is only violent to those who watch it happen. Who mourns the living dead? Not they themselves. The horror such a transformation evokes is the terror of a death before death, or of a new life taking the place of yours. It is this horror that haunts Cronenberg’s characters throughout his corpus. And it haunts Saul Tenser, but with a crucial difference. Here we see someone not gripped by the opening throes of such terror but exhausted by its tolls.
While Tenser and Caprice’s war against transformation begins as a largely individualized struggle against Tenser’s own body, it swiftly becomes about much more. The whole world is changing. Tenser is recruited by the wonderfully stilted Detective Cope as a government plant, embedded into the suspiciously hedonistic community of avant-garde body artists in order to monitor it for seditious elements. This is a community that includes artists, including Klinek, who are prepared to radically embrace the new status quo. In due course Tenser discovers a vast underground network of revolutionaries who believe that the new human body is the future of human life, not its diseased end. (Cronenberg never spells out what, precisely, about the new human body so terrifies governments and financial institutions. Perhaps he recognizes that they are terrified simply by newness. The danger they portend is, I suspect, more than symbolic: What new world might these bodies make? What place will the congresses and corporations of old have in it?) He cannot bring himself to share their optimism for quite some time.
In this film, Viggo Mortensen cements himself as a crucial recurring player in Cronenberg’s cinematic world. He calibrates himself perfectly to its surreal cadences, its obsession with slowness and stillness. In Mortensen’s hands, Tenser feels archaic, glacial. He moves in his body like it is a thing covering him, not an enemy but a natural disaster. Frequently in the film, characters debate whether or not his tumorous growths can be considered products of his will. Mortensen plays Tenser as a man who misunderstands what that question means and is too tired to try harder. He has accepted that if it is not his old self that animates the flesh, then the flesh must be de-animated, not even worth understanding, only excising. He is unable to imagine that his will might outstrip him. He will learn to.
Caprice learns more quickly. At the beginning of the film, she is a collaborator with Saul’s desire for control. With a scientist’s eye, she resists calling Saul’s growths organs, for to be an organ is to have a function—“organ” as in “organized.” Such purpose would grant these oddities a meaning, and thus a structure. Caprice sees Saul’s body as worse than bad design, as no design at all, as vestigial flesh sent not from the past but from an impossible future. Where Saul has surrendered his sensuousness to pain, Caprice is capable of a sharp perception. She notices what’s there, not just what must be gone. I remember with great pleasure a moment when she glares up at the camera, forehead gnarled by scars she accepted willingly, willing to confront the world—and thus be changed by it, if need be—where Tenser can only resist it. It is no wonder that she is the first of the two to be infected by the revolution.
Tenser’s hopelessness, on the other hand, makes him more than a reactionary: it makes him an agent of the state. Herein we see what lurks in the shadows of Crimes of the Future: state and corporate actors, unnamed. They are present here only in the way an empire is present in colonized territory, as ramshackle outposts and local administrators, odd little aliens whose presence belies the behemothic forces generating them. Cope, a police officer, is one such representative; Timlin and Wippet are two others, officers of the National Organ Registry, which catalogs and removes the not-really-organs oozing out of citizens. Their mission is an extension of Tenser’s own: the halting of the violence of the new, the eradication of anarchism in the body politic. This seems to be a far cry from Klinek’s bold utopianism about the changing body. But Cronenberg’s brilliance lies in his realization that Tenser is not the only one in league with the state; Klinek is too.
Such a claim starts to become intelligible if one stops calling Klinek’s aesthetic inclinations fantastical and starts calling them escapist. Tenser seeks to reject the new world his transformations open up; Klinek does too, only Klinek calls his rejection an embrace, in a sly act of conceptual dishonesty, or perhaps distrust. Neither Saul nor Klinek can accept the world as it is now; neither Saul nor Klinek can make art about their bodies as they are now. They seek to replace them, mystifying that replacement under a pretension of “conservatism” and “progressivism,” respectively. Saul brutally terraforms his flesh into compliance; Klinek constructs a flashing mirage. As Berceau describes his conceptual failure, Cronenberg’s camera keeps Klinek’s body—previously in sharp focus in the camera’s foreground—in the background over her shoulder, out of focus. Rendered wispy, immaterial, Klinek is being sent back to the drawing board, incapable of retaining presence, of being present.
Saul seeks to replace the present with a past, Klinek with a future. Both are crimes. For this film is exemplary proof that there is no crime more despicable than the evasion of the erotic, which is to say, the evasion of what is in front of you. This rings doubly true for those who wish to make a better world; for such evasion makes that work impossible.
But how can Cronenberg escape condemnation for the same offense? He has made a film about the social, political and emotional life of bodies that do not exist. Reframing Klinek as an escapist seems like a sleight of hand by a critic unwilling to condemn fantasy, once and for all. And perhaps I have by now sufficiently hinted at the stakes of this question, which stretch beyond Cronenberg himself: If escapism is just fantasy by another name, and makes the political work of building a better world impossible, what are we to do with the fact that the courage to imagine better worlds seems essential to transformation? Can radical politics, the kind of politics this very film seems to justify, survive without fantasy? The latter’s disavowal starts to look an awful lot like complacency.
Saul and Caprice discover the answers to these dilemmas in two bodies. The lesson begins with an autopsy. In a climactic performance, Saul and Caprice open up the congealed flesh of a dead child. This child’s body was transforming, like Saul’s. And he was murdered by his mother—a murder precipitated by the machinations of the state—because of it. She, like the National Organ Registry and the police, had been afraid of it, and could not accept it. This cataclysmic brutality was born out of distrust in disorder.
Animated by Seydoux’s miraculous performance, we watch Caprice transform first. She discovers the brutality of a way of thinking and feeling that throws the world away from itself—into the past, into the future. She does not do so by fantasizing about what humans could be or were. She finally is arrested, stopped short—her voice quavers, solid in her throat—by this human, in front of her; his organs marked by government surveillance, his lungs drained by a real woman who pressed a real pillow against his real face and held it there until he stopped kicking and crying. We watch her learn how to see not flesh replaced with ideas, or ideas converted into flesh, but flesh in its own irreducible mystery. We see her confront the cost of reactionary terror, the inability to accept—to find erotic, worthy of love, worthy of holding within your head and dreaming about, fantasizing about—what is present.
Oddly, this is precisely the kind of thing Crimes’s numerous critics have accused the film of failing to see. Alison Willmore writes, for Vulture, that it “remains aloof and indifferent to the people it puts onscreen”; Richard Brody writes that the movie “is less an experience than it is an idea.” These critics view the film principally as a metaphor—which seeks to represent ideas with fictional flesh—and thus deem it to be a failure. But this is a consequence of the critics’ own failure to see the film itself. One of Tenser’s curses is his inability to eat in peace; his body finds the consumption of organic matter loathsome and wracks him with pain as he tries to choke it down. He can only satisfy this most biological of needs thanks to a mollifying machine—similar to the one that lets him sleep—that jerks him about as it manipulates his nervous system to send the food sliding down his throat. Tenser and Caprice see this process as proof of the farcical monstrosity of this empty body, the flight of his body from itself: what a laughable thing, a body that won’t let itself eat.
They take this to mean that Tenser’s body has become disorganized, devoid of the self-supporting functions that allows us to call a thing an organism. But the truth is that it has found a new organicity, the exact same organicity that the murdered, autopsied child had begun to be possessed by: the ability to consume, with great pleasure, inorganic plastics, the waste that human beings have accumulated through our own masochistic inability to see the world and our effects on it. Saul saw his evolution as devolution, as not merely suffering but meaningless suffering. But it is in fact saturated with significance. His body is desperately trying to tell him that he is transformed, and that his transformed self has a life to live, if only he lets it. That is, Tenser’s pain is not meaningless. Like all pain, it is a language.
What the violence of reaction was keeping from Tenser was not just some theoretical insight or spiritual harmony. It wasn’t letting him eat. Sensuous liberation; liberation of the senses: that is the revolution that Tenser had so feared and that he eventually learns to love. In the final scene Saul takes the leap of faith required to listen to his body, bites down and swallows. The last thing we see in the film is Saul’s face, a tear moving down his cheek as he eats plastic in complete stillness, at peace.
Art credit: David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future, 2022 Photo by Nikos Nikolopoulos; Courtesy of Serendipity Point Films. David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future, 2022 Photo by Nikos Nikolopoulos; Courtesy of Serendipity Point Films