Crimes of the Future is a return to David Cronenberg’s classic body horror mode, albeit in a more muted form. On the one hand, Cronenberg luxuriates in the power of prosthetic grotesquerie more than any of his films in over two decades. On the other hand, he also indulges in the expository style of some of his earliest features, evincing a genuine love for science fiction discourse, and for world-building in the richest and most expansive sense. As a result, Crimes of the Future feels remarkably continuous with the virtual-visceral thresholds of Existenz and Crash, which were themselves late iterations of this classic style. This time around, though, it’s all shrouded in darkness, to the point where the film often plays as Cronenberg inflected through Bergman, both in the claustrophobic intensity of it all and, more specifically, in the way that faces are disfigured by the intimate presence of the camera.
At the same time, the driving premise of Crimes of the Future feels like an allegory for the waning of body horror itself in an increasingly overstimulated world. We open in a fairly nondescript time and place where humans are starting to experience “accelerated evolution syndrome” – in other words, starting to demonstrate qualities that represent the next stage in human development, or even the transition to a post-human future. There are two main features of this accelerated evolution. First, pain has almost vanished. Second, people have started to develop novel organs – variously called neo-organs, or idiopathic organs – without any clear function. Interestingly, these two modes of evolution don’t occur at the same rate. In fact, the few people who still experience pain are the most likely to develop neo-organs, which appear to recalibrate the pain centres of the body, and keep pain alive, as they emerge.
Crimes of the Future is driven by the two main discourses that arise from this new stage in human evolution. The first is driven by the state, which is essentially paranoid about these neo-organs, and so aims to catalogue and tattoo them, in an effort to stave off the post-human. We first encounter this approach through the film’s protagonists, Saul Tenser, played by Viggo Mortensen, and Caprice, played by Lea Seydoux. Since Tenser is developing new organs at an alarming rate, the state has an entire portfolio dedicated to his viscera – the “Tenser organography” – that it plans to use as a way of investigating evolution more widely.
The second and more interesting of these discourses is aesthetic, rather than bureaucratic. Both Saul and Caprice resist the government’s intervention because they have developed a relationship, and a mode of performance art, around Caprice’s periodic surgical removal of Saul’s organs. Whenever a new organ emerges, Caprice excises it for a captive audience, radically reinventing the idea of inner beauty. Together, the duo become “artists of the inner landscape,” crafting topographies of viscera, embodied memento mori. To some extent, the state is able to co-opt this aesthetic discourse by holding an “inner beauty pageant”, crowned by an award for the best original organ with no known function. But this corporate aesthetic doesn’t really hold, partly because Saul and Caprice reinvent art itself, likening it to a tumour that they reinvest with a new excess of expression, a taste for flamboyant and unconstrained growth. Even the discourse around this organ art is quite beautiful (it offsets the talkiness of the film), much as Caprice’s sketches of Saul’s growths look like art designs for a future film.
It’s not only the organs themselves that constitute this aesthetic experience, but the spaces between them, which Caprice and Saul compare to “outer space.” Inner space here is just as remote and sublime as the most distant reaches of the universe, and while Caprice may be helming the surgical equipment, only Saul can fully express how this trip to inner space feels. For Saul and Caprice’s performance art isn’t merely a celebration of viscera, but a testament to the pain itself, which has become most profound aesthetic commodity by virtue of its very rarity. Much of the spectacle of these surgical scenes lies in the way that Saul’s neo-organs, and Caprice’s removal of them, continually (and unpredictably) recalibrate his pain centres. In that sense, Saul is the artist as much as Caprice, and perhaps even more so, as she continually asks him what his physical pain feels like, and aspires to it herself, even if she can only ever experience it vicariously through her surgical-artistic work, like the audience itself.
As the film proceeds, we learn that Saul and Caprice are simply the cutting-edge of a wider reconfiguration of aesthetics in the wake of human evolution. With pain at a premium, aesthetic experience is more embedded in the body than ever before, turning blemish and disfigurement into new iterations of beauty. This gravitates aesthetics into a new and literal openness, “the desire to cut my face open,” as one spectator puts it, but also “a desire to be open” more generally that, for Saul and Caprice, “is often the start of something.” At its most extreme, surgery becomes sex, or replaces sex, restoring the pleasure-pain nexus of sensuous experience that has been so decimated by the excision of pain from the body. Caprice and Saul champion this new horizon of sexuality, forging an intimacy that is totally dissociated from gender roles, and gesturing towards a total devolution of gender as surgical incision replaces sexual penetration. Genital differences are subsumed into the skin as the common denominator between men and women, producing a new kind of intimacy that dwells on the skin as a surface to be ruptured, cut or bruised; the most vivid point of entry to another body.
Again, this is highly redolent of Crash, which used cars, rather than surgery, to evoke what Michel Foucault described as post-genital sexuality. Like Crash, too, these procedures are couched in a vast hush, a monastic austerity, as if Saul is being initiated into the deep mysteries of his own body. While the technology may be futuristic, it reawakens arcane and atavistic forms of bodily knowledge – reading viscera for signs – much as Caprice’s surgical equipment, the “Sarc,” is modelled on an ancient Egyptian coronary sarcophagus. This austerity dovetails with the abstracted backdrops, which initially situate us in what appears to be a deserted Italian town, so quiet and dark that we seem to have stepped back to the Renaissance era whenever we leave the high-tech confines of Caprice and Saul’s studio. Certainly, Cronenberg imbues the surgery, and the postures more generally, with the mannered elegance of Renaissance painting, which is only enhanced by the abstracted gloom that hangs over it all. We’re witnessing the next Renaissance of the human body here, a step beyond the Vitruvian Man – instead of restoring the classical world, Saul is “moving beyond the human, in the classical sense.” Accordingly, by the third act, these Renaissance fixtures have collapsed into the desuetudes of Italian neorealism, as Cronenberg collapses and crashes this evacuated cityscape into a barren shoreline dotted with hulls of wrecked ships.
The entire aesthetic organisation of the Renaissance seems to have dispersed in these final scenes, challenging us, in turn, to consider how many of our own post-human affectations might still be anchored in those comforting humanist coordinates. It’s here that Cronenberg makes the most dramatic gesture of the film, by refusing to frame the post-human as a state that we grasp primarily through our nervous system. Instead, these neo-organs crystallise into an entire idiopathic system, as unique as any other bodily system, but most aligned with the digestive system. A subplot emerges about a cult who have tried to hasten this process by consuming plastic, while Saul’s own symptoms gradually coalesce around his inability to properly digest human food, which abates the moment that Caprice feeds him plastic in turn.
Cronenberg thus suggests that, when the post-human singularity emerges, we will feel it first and foremost through our digestive system – or that it will conflate our nervous and digestive systems as never before into the “double brain” that neurologists and gastroenterologists have speculated about in recent years. In Crimes of the Future, it is our digestive system that makes us human, but it is also the digestive system that yearns to become post-human, meaning that, for all its cerebral intensity, Cronenberg addresses our sensorium primarily through our digestive systems as well. To embrace the post-human is to ingest foreign objects into the body – the surgical scalpel is just the first of many such objects, consumed and digested by Saul as much as it is inserted and controlled by Caprice. And the genius of Crimes of the Future is that it itself is such a foreign object, familiar at first, but increasingly difficult to digest as it moves into a freeform third act. By the end, it seems to be addressing a stomach other than our own, ingesting, digesting and expelling exposition at an increasingly erratic and unpredictable pace, enacting the changes that it describes in all their post-human alterity.