By Eileen G’Sell
Crimes of the Future
Dir. David Cronenberg, Canada/France/Greece, NEON
A woman moans as a razor blade is dipped into her thigh. A cherubic boy feasts on a pink plastic trash can. A bearded hipster unwraps what looks like a Three Musketeers bar, but is certainly not, based on the number of bodies that collapse after taking a bite. To enjoy the meticulously bleak hellscape of David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future is to be ready to reconcile violence with art, cruelty with criticism. Much has been made by the press (prompted by Cronenberg himself, no less) about viewers fleeing their seats during preview screenings (as did one woman in my row halfway through), and surely those justifiably squeamish about filicide, body mutilation, and graphic depictions of organ removal should steer clear—or at least keep their eyes strategically squinted.
But to dismiss Crimes as mere provocation seems a mistake—even, and perhaps especially, if mainstream response to Cronenberg’s filmography tends to reductively focus on only his courtship of controversy. Tonally uneven and a bit didactic in its dialogue, Crimes is nevertheless a film that both takes itself as a serious piece of art and lampoons the appetite for novel spectacle that subsumes so much of contemporary visual culture. In other words, this is a film that invites us to smirk at those titillated by shock value, all while being seductively shocked ourselves.
And what, in 2022—with access to a 24-hour digital reel of mass shootings, money shots, and drone footage of botched air strikes—is left to fruitfully shock? Here it might be useful to consult Maggie Nelson’s 2011 book The Art of Cruelty, which interrogates the process—and purpose—of aestheticizing violence, and how “cruelty” might be experienced as a productive mode of both introspection and intellectual discourse. Pointing to what she deems the “full-fledged assault on the barriers between art and life that much 20th-century art worked so hard to perform,” Nelson asks whether “there are certain aspects or instances of the so-called art of cruelty … that are still wild and worthwhile, now that we purportedly inhabit a political and entertainment landscape increasingly glutted with images—and actualities—of torture, sadism, and endless warfare?” From the last century, she emphasizes the work of Francis Bacon, Chris Burden, and Ana Mendieta; in the current one, she unpacks the plays of Martin McDonagh and the disturbing silhouettes of artist Kara Walker.
Crimes suggests that, in the unknown future, “cruel” art will take as its medium our literal viscera, the innards slimy beneath our skin. Set in a caliginous “synthetic environment” (shot in dilapidated parts of Athens, Greece) in which humans have developed new internal organs in response to ecological degradation, the film is stylistically more cogent than narratively deft. Before a gasping cyberpunk cognoscenti, protagonist Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortenson) and his creative partner, Caprice (Léa Seydoux), stage baroque performances wherein his rogue tissues are removed in a sunless arena. Across the course of the film, the duo’s “art” attracts the attention of the National Organ Registry, headed by a solicitous bureaucrat named Wippet (Don McKellar) and his skittish assistant Timlin (Kristen Stewart), comically enamored of Saul’s “Accelerated Evolution Syndrome,” the crux of his global renown. Meanwhile, an underground army of plastic-eaters lurks in the shadows.
“The world is a lot more dangerous now that pain has all but disappeared,” Saul spells out early on—one of several moments in which the narrative stakes might have been better conveyed visually. Thankfully, we are never given a precise reason for the absence of pain, and rather led to infer that sensate suffering has transformed into erotic thrill. “Surgery is the new sex,” Timlin whispers into Saul’s ear as he recovers, supine, from a performance. Dark humor aside—this line one of several to perhaps intentionally elicit intermittent chuckles—her claim probes more than a few philosophical quandaries. To what extent is penetration itself a violation of autonomy versus a form of intimacy? To what degree are we, as spectators, hungry for new aesthetic forms of such violations as outrageous, and ergo gratifying, visual terrain? In a reversal of traditional hetero sex roles, the women characters in Crimes are those typically wielding the scalpels, or at least sensually directing those brandished by insectoid robots. Is it a “crime,” then, to imagine the cruelty of sexual invasion as less brutal when absent of physical anguish?
As is natural in a Cronenberg world, in Crimes’ anesthetized future, where humans are no longer aroused by exterior corporeal qualities, blood and guts are the new erotic horizon. Any aberration can be fetishized; cancer becomes a type of kink. When Timlin finally corners Saul in a barren “safe space” within her admin quarters, she doesn’t want to fuck him so much as finger his open mouth. Staring inside the open cavity as a crack of light escapes in through the blinds, she swoons in awe before attempting a kiss. Like the sunbeams streaming narrowly into the frame, the penetration of the dermis becomes an ungendered way of being “open” to the brave new world. “You fill me with a desire to cut my face open,” Caprice confesses in a later scene to a ball-gowned woman who has consented to crescent gashes publicly carved into her forehead and cheeks. Beauty itself is recast as the consequence of careful, but conscious, scarring; as hard as it is to look at the gleaming tools of incision in the fore- or middle-ground of many shots, it is often harder to look away.
Though Cronenberg and Mortensen have been labeled chauvinists—the former for writing underdeveloped women characters and the latter, more recently, for dismissing Julia Ducournau’s Titane as a knockoff of Cronenberg’s Crash— Crimes is led by the strength of its mostly female cast. From Timlin as a custodian-dressed coquette to the mischievous Dani and Berst (Nadia Litz and Tanaya Beatty), sapphic techno mechanics obsessed with the “Snarc” robot that can be digitally manipulated to extract tumoral organs, women play more active roles than men as agents of change. Looking like Clint Eastwood dressed as the Grim Reaper for Halloween, Saul skulks around in a black cloak through abandoned alleys and naval yards. Helpless to his overzealous insides, his character is campier than Caprice, though similarly single note; tonally the film can be reminiscent of Blade Runner or even Brazil, but unlike these movies, Crimes insists, awkwardly at times, on its own thematic heft. “The digestive system…the circulatory system…the lymphatic system…” Timlin sputters sultrily at the prospect of clandestine organs sprouting up inside Saul. After moments like these, it’s hard to take a scene of the dissection of a boy’s cadaver seriously; the ambiguous tonal shifts rather cruelly force us to discern whether to be appalled or become gradually desensitized, and the process doesn’t always feel purposeful.
At the same time, the chiaroscuro lighting and artful editing of surgical violence take on greater visual potency with each theatrical organ removal. As Saul’s and Caprice’s audience lurches forward to record via “ring-cams” their performances, our own voyeurism feels ever more fraught. If surgery is the “new sex” at the vanguard of high art, it begs the question of how art and sex are themselves forms of spectacular exposure in an increasingly visual—and filtered—media landscape. After all, how much arousal today is prompted by witnessing staged sex on smartphone screens?And aren’t operating rooms still called “theaters” in Britain—a callback to the Renaissance, when dissections were performed in anatomical amphitheaters to the delight of paying viewers? In terms of our incessantly refreshed social media feeds, is our hunger for constant vulnerability among celebrities in the form of “authentic” pics and confessional posts truly that far from salivating at the sight of a stranger’s shiny entrails? If someone “opens up” about emotional damage or a traumatic event, is not our ravenous curiosity vaguely pornographic?
Expanding on Antonin Artaud’s notion of a “theater of cruelty,” one that signifies “rigor, implacable intention and decision, irreversible and absolute determination,” Nelson is attracted to a kind of surgical “precision, sharpness, [and] rigor” available in certain types of art, but she is equally wary of how access to visual stimuli might dull, even “deaden,” the viewer’s moral senses. Artaud “did not live to see the piece…published shortly after 9/11,” she writes, “in which French philosopher Jean Baudrillard called the terrorist attack… ‘our theater of cruelty, the only one left to us.’” Neither, she emphasizes, “did [Artaud] live in an age of, say, beheadings available for casual viewing on YouTube.” When Cronenberg penned the original script for Crimes twenty years ago, our access to international crises was limited to a handful of news channels, our digital access to one another’s “private” lives relegated to LiveJournal or MySpace. The variety of voyeuristic platforms on offer today staggers in comparison.
When an underground “Inner Beauty Pageant” courts Saul as a contestant, he’s flattered, but perturbed: his “art” comes from deliberately—very publicly—removing his renegade organs, rather than accepting their presence. “We bring control to anarchy,” explains Caprice, defending the merit in their bloody recitals. That cancer—itself a form of biological anarchy—has long been correlated to exposure to environmental ills makes the film feel as harrowingly plausible as it is, often, risibly over the top. And it is compelling, if disquieting, to think of our bodies as corporally assimilating to an ever less organic world—just as we have already accrued a cyborgian tendency to outsource much of our memory to digital devices. Crimes of the Future broods on these tensions, but, like most worthwhile art, refuses to resolve them.
“Let us create a map that will guide us into the heart of darkness,” Caprice declares with gravitas before slicing in a final time at the film’s climax. For this body horror tour de force—both her performance art and the film for which it serves as a foil—what excites us sexually and aesthetically are the same, and just as likely to entice as repulse. In this regard, Cronenberg—with his ability to simultaneously stun and sicken, dazzle and disgust—might be taken as a cruel artist, the cruelty of his film taken to, in Nelson’s words, “diagnose,” so as to resist, the cruelty of the greater world, or at least the world of the future.