Originally Published in Farrago Edition Six (2022).
Content Warning: discussions of body horror, mutilation, and surgery, mention of transphobia, mention of sex
I have been feeling a certain kind of way about movies as of late. I've been finding it harder and harder to be excited for new releases, and more and more disappointed with the releases I have been seeing. Instead of going to the movies to see new releases, I've instead been going to see more classic films; Princess Mononoke screening at the Lido for the 25th anniversary of its release, ACMI doing retrospective screenings of Wong Kar-wai's gorgeous films, or the Astor Theatre's inspired double features. My trouble with new releases seems to stem from an issue of how film is treated, particularly by distributors, and I'm not the only one to notice it. Namely, Martin Scorsese, in his 2021 essay for Harper's Magazine about Federico Fellini, states that "the art of cinema is being systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator, 'content'.
It can seem a bit elitist to say "they don't make them like they used to" but there is a truth to it. Through the proliferation of streaming, and the widespread adoption of algorithms to help decide what people engage with, as well as the monopolisation of the industry, particularly by Disney (as also discussed by Scorsese), film production and distribution is a trickier business than it once was, not even mentioning the impact of COVID-19 on theatres. Simply, it seems as if there are not as many "good" movies coming out recently as there used to be.
Recently however, as a part of the Melbourne International Film Festival, I saw Crimes of the Future, and found that I had to alter my perspective. Crimes of the Future marks David Cronenberg's return to body horror, his first since 1999's eXistenZ, and while many of the same themes, fears, and anxieties of his older works re-occur here, they are able to be progressed beyond his initial scope and narrative conclusions. Rather, this newest film is a treatise from Cronenberg on bodily autonomy, art, and how we make meaning.
Crimes of the Future itself is, on the surface, a film about Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and Caprice (Léa Seydoux) as a performance art duo in an ambiguously dystopic future where pain and infection have almost entirely been eliminated, who perform through surgery. Tenser grows new organs inside his body, Caprice cuts them out. It is through this work that Tenser ends up working with the police's "new vice" unit, dedicated to making sure that human evolution does not progress in ways the state cannot control.
This can sound like a bit of an odd description of the movie, which is fair, it is an odd movie. Everything moves to a very peculiar rhythm. Most of the dialogue is delivered in a very stilted affect, as if many of the actors are unsure of how to actually deliver their lines, as if their characters exist more to communicate ideas to the audience than to give the impression of a full character, but despite this, there is still a sense of depth and richness to how they are portrayed. To be clear, I do find this compelling. It comes across as entirely intentional on the part of all involved. And yet, where I find the most interesting parts of the film lie in the dialogue they deliver, particularly in how it portrays the subjectivity of meaning that people find in their art. So, let's place this film into the Sark Unit and dissect it.
Much of the discussion the film poses is focused on the meaning that all the different characters hold towards bodies. Within the language that the film establishes, bodies stand in for a given work of art, art itself is embodied. Each and everyone reads into the work precisely what they want to read. For example, immediately after Caprice and Saul's first performance in the film, we get the reflections of a few audience members, namely Kristen Stewart's Timlin, one of the most compelling performances of the film, a weaselly, mumbling, shaky woman from the organ registry, who, in one of the films horniest moments, gives the tagline for the film by reading her own lust, eroticisation of surgery, and desire for proximity to Tenser into the performance when she forcefully states that "surgery is the new sex". After the interaction, Tenser and Caprice remark to each other that "art triumphs once again".
And yet, while they may not entirely agree with Timlin's point while she is making it, it nonetheless informs their relationship going forward, as they do perform surgery on each other as an erotic action "just for [them]", showing the interplay between art, artists, and audience So far, this is just a cursory, more surface-level example of the discussion posed by the film, rather, where the film gains more complexity in its exploration of how meaning is constructed through the ambiguity and contradiction it presents. Through the contradiction of its characters, the film opens itself up for interpretation by the audience. I am specifically referring to Saul Tenser's own justifications for his art, the reasons why he grows his organs, his "designer cancers", and cuts them out. Saul, a man who is "afraid of everything" "doesn't like what's happening with the body. Particularly his body, which is why he keeps cutting it up, to paraphrase the film. This itself seems contradictory to many of the reasons given by other characters for why they find his work powerful, but also to the pleasure conveyed by Saul during his autopsies, the pleasure he derives from engaging with the practices he seems to be trying to distance himself from. To read into this justification, we can see that much of the imagery of this film, the horror of the body as art, and in fact, much of Cronenberg's body of work, is a fear of somatechnics. Joseph Pugliese and Susan Stryker, in their essay, The somatechnics of race and whiteness', write that "it suggests that embodiment cannot be reduced to the merely physical any more than it can be dematerialised as a purely discursive phenomenon. Embodiment is always bicultural, always techno-organic, always a practical achievement realized through some concrete means." To put this into my own words, the body itself, and our experiences of embodiment, are defined by our relationship and interactions with technology. There is always and has always been an integration of the body itself and the technologies it is defined in distinction from, precisely this is what defines the body and culture as a technology.
In terms of Cronenberg's work, it is defined in part by its fear of this integration, particularly some of its most memorable and potent images. Think of the disgust conjured by the gun integrating itself into James Wood's hand in Videodrome, cables twisting and piercing until the pistol itself is a part of the flesh. His work is marked by a fear of the interactions between body and technology, the ways that the body is shaped and defined by the culture it exists in. For this reason, while his work is subversive in the images presented on screen, it can also be viewed as reactionary and fearful of technology, deviant sex, or even
Here, in Crimes of the Future, the disgust is transformed into acceptance, through Saul's character arc. His initial justifications of his work transform. Where he initially tries to distance himself from other performance artists like him, namely Klinek, the "ear man" featured in many of the promotional materials for the film, is derided as "escapist propaganda", as only being surface level in what it is saying (literally, the ears don't work, they are just for show). He does not want to admit that he has something in common with those that purposefully modify their bodies. Yet this justification is fraught, since it is referred to multiple times that he is willing the organs to grow himself. The film ends on a fascinating note, with a shot of Saul reminiscent of The Passion of Joan of Arc; after having eaten a bar of plastic, one which previously had killed a character, he accepts the organs he has grown. It is his "let them eat plastic" moment, an acceptance of the integration and relationship between himself and technology, a somatechnic enlightenment. An acceptance of himself as he is, of his identity as someone who exists with technology, not opposed to it.
To conclude, through the film's somatechnic exploration of body, technology and how meaning is constructed through the interactions of the body with technology, it is able to transcend its body horror roots, instead presenting an acceptance, which gives the film a greater sense of ambiguity towards the attitudes of the characters, and thus is able to convey a greater, more moving sense of emotional reality towards how the film views meaning construction and embodiment in the face of this annihilation.