Sex by a Thousand Cuts: David Cronenberg’s “Crimes of the Future”

Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and Caprice (Léa Seydoux) in David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future

David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future presents us with a decaying modern civilization seamlessly coinciding with the moldy wear and tear of contemporary Athens — a fitting shooting location for a sci-fi dystopia that forgoes the polished surfaces, spacefaring, and multiverse traversal that other sci-fi dystopias depict. This version of the future offers up a plausibly gritty atmosphere of societal decrepitude combined with decadence. From the outset, a vibratory musical score by Howard Shore asserts a sense of gnawing unease, even if the film’s pace resists conventional urgency. Nobody in this projected future appears to be holding down a regular job, yet unsurprisingly, this is a world in which the carceral state is still going strong. People can still die swiftly and meaninglessly in Cronenberg’s future; mortality has not been cheated, though cyborgian aspirations abound. 

The story opens on a concrete island structure and a boy in the foreground idling by the ocean as his mother (Lihi Kornowski) wearily warns him not to eat anything. Their seaside home is dilapidated and spartan, and the mother soon spies the boy in the bathroom munching away on a plastic waste bin (the amateur screenwriter in me thought he should have also discreetly digested his plastic toothbrush). She answers this transgression by suffocating the child with a pillow.

Cronenberg has long been preoccupied with the proximity between the human and the nonhuman, and this savage yet methodical murder underlines this distinction while setting up the movie’s nominal mystery: Is this boy definably human? His death lands the mother in prison, but she’s hardly contrite. If the boy had been a cannibal, she argues, he would have eaten Barbie dolls. Though the screenplay was written in 1999 (and bears resemblance to Cronenberg’s ExistenZ, produced the same year, as well as his 1996 adaptation of JG Ballard’s Crash), the story anticipates real-world studies of microbes that have evolved to eat plastic littering the oceans. As Scott Speedman’s Lang Dotrice explains, transhumans should be celebrated for their consumption of humanity’s toxic industrial waste. A theoretically perfect solution to mankind’s ongoing crimes of environmental destruction.

Viggo Mortensen growls his way through his characterization as Saul Tenser, a performance artist with digestive problems and a corresponding knack for manifesting novel organs. He’s also an ambiguously motivated undercover informant, often dressed in a monk-like cassock-and-cowl ensemble. Léa Seydoux enchants as his accomplice, surgeon and lover, Caprice. In one initial scene, she solemnly eats strips of bacon with a wooden spoon while Tenser sits feebly in a wobbling armchair called a “breakfaster,” whose jerky movements apparently aid his impaired digestion. The film’s cartoonish accoutrements (designed by Cronenberg’s longtime collaborator Carol Spier) mirror the sense of grisliness and absurdity on view in Naked Lunch and Videodrome, where bone and metal are ickilly enmeshed. Crimes also features adult-sized womb pods called “orchidbeds” for sleep or rejuvenation, and “autopsy modules” that double as shared nesting vessels when Tenser and Caprice are in the mood.

Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) in Crimes of the Future

Welket Bungué’s Detective Cope might have brought more suspense to the picture if his detecting were more focused and coherent, but Cope’s scenes tend to underline the cloudy nature of what constitutes a crime in Cronenberg’s future. It’s unclear what kind of information Cope seeks, and to what end. Kristen Stewart’s jittery Timlin, encountering Tenser and Caprice in the newly established (yet dusty) National Organ Registry, whispers inexplicably, hinting at a nefarious agenda that remains vague. She expresses a desire to be part of Tenser’s art, a potential rival to Caprice. “Surgery,” she says twice, “is the new sex.” Despite this declaration, she arranges a private meeting with him, probing his mouth with her fingers and pressing herself upon him with an inconclusive kiss, a rather passé maneuver in this context, one which prompts Tenser to admit: “I’m not good at the old sex.” 

Conventional modes of seduction and affection have always been awkward or impossible in Cronenberg films, and Crimes continues the complex psychosexual dynamic that has long informed his work, a dynamic in which romantic love is a powerful, albeit paradoxical ingredient. (Who can forget the scene between husband and wife in A History of Violence, where impulses resembling domestic violence and rape give way to a consensual tryst.) Caprice and Tenser’s rapport corresponds to that of Mr. and Mrs. Ballard in Crash: she addresses him as darling, and they enjoy making a spectacle of each other’s lacerations, a literalization of falling in love with the other’s wounds and suffering. The chemistry between Crash’s married couple—Deborah Unger’s nonchalant blank gaze providing a foil for James Spader’s boyish perversion—may be unmatched, but Cronenberg allows a moment of tenderness as Saul and Caprice lay side by side within an autopsy pod, mechanical arms slicing into their flesh—though this lust is less an intimate connection between lovers than it is a display of accompanied masturbation. It’s a wonder there are any babies being made in this future; porny orifices can manifest with one surgical cut across any part of the body, before being neatly sewn and sealed up. 

Cronenberg’s gore is often comical though not without gross-out shock value; consider the expanding slit in Videodrome, the exploding head in Scanners, and the disembowelment in Dead Ringers, for just a few examples. In contrast to his horny spectators, Tenser expresses distaste for the excess tumors developing in his body, and reacts with uncertainty when Caprice surgically distorts her own forehead. Yet he is, all in all, complicit, a character not so distant from Blade Runner‘s Deckard, an in-between creature, part human, part something else, trying to resist transhuman tendencies as he attempts to unravel the mysteries of a body-mutating underworld that exists mostly well above ground, out in the open, enacted in side streets or public performances documented by an assortment of listless, picture-snapping paparazzi. Pain and its ancillaries have been converted into titillation, hence we have the imagery of a stitch-faced dancer covered in ear transplants, and orgiastically arranged background extras grinding small blades into exposed flesh.  

Ear Man in Crimes of the Future

Society in Crimes is mostly bohemian, pivoting around surplus labor in the guise of performative rituals including an “inner beauty pageant.” Instead of the elaborate gynecological instruments given prominence in Dead Ringers, in this instance we have custom-designed body organs displayed as art objects — created inside Tenser, tattooed and extracted by Caprice. The couple believes they are engaging in an anarchic artistic practice, yet one key exchange has Speedman’s Lang guffawing at their claim to integrity. Lang insists that they help his cause by conducting a public autopsy on his dead son, a publicity stunt of sorts to expose concealed truths about the acceleration toward transhumanism. As a former trauma doctor, Caprice is concerned with the issue of consent, not with the ethics of the surgical act itself. 

In a recent interview, Cronenberg said he felt compelled to revisit the subject of “who owns whose body,” but the film’s under-developed Orwellian subplot sows confusion about the motives of secondary characters. Two scampering female “Lifeform Ware” technicians named Router (Nadia Litz) and Berst (Tanaya Beatty) act as assassins on behalf of who knows who. No one is seen greenlighting these murders or benefiting from them, though this confusion may be closer to the way violence plays out within a convoluted, runaway corporate machine, a world where no one is in charge and everyone is a creep to varying degrees. 

If Tenser has a “political problem” and not a “medical problem,” as one mysteriously taunting woman suggests, it stems from the National Organ Registry’s assertion that human evolution is “going wrong” and is “insurrectional.” While our present-day political psyche can be characterized by exhibitionism, rightwing regression, leftist outcry, and libertarian leanings, the body remains the site of almost all political battles. To be able to augment the body, to customize it as desired, is a way of exerting personal control and autonomy in the face of uncontrollable forces, such as climate change. Biological disruption and body sculpting in Crimes are both an affront to the regulation of bodies and a pseudo-mystical path towards grace.

Viewed alongside the recent Genesis Breyer P-Orridge exhibit at Pioneer Works, Cronenberg’s approach to gender conventions seems a notch démodé against a contemporary backdrop of pandrogynous, non-conforming bodies. What the film insinuates is the fashionable nature of surgical intervention and body sculpting, by which humanity can be seen sliding into fetishism and hedonism while attempting to transcend our all-too-vulnerable flesh. 

The film’s abrupt ending involves a Bernini-esque display of ecstasy, with Tenser sanctified by an act of decisive surrender and acceptance. This moment of rapture is being recorded by Caprice, which adds a layer of voyeurism, as if the act of consumption itself has become the height of kink. The concept of “the human” is sacrificed on the altar of techno-art. As psychoanalysis has told us many times over, there’s often an element of debasement in enjoyment, and Cronenberg, ever alert to the vagaries of pleasure, doesn’t flinch.


Jessica Almereyda has work published in Art Agenda, Art Observed, Blue Arrangements, BOMB, Big Other, Brooklyn Rail, Caesura, Fence, Hotel, Liber Feminist Review, Manhattan Art Review, Overland, and others. She is based in New York.

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