The body has become ungovernable. The only way to seize back control is grisly intervention, staged as spectacle. Flesh becomes theatre, to be sliced, hacked and poked. The audience and artist are wedded in a kind of macabre complicity. But this butchery is generative, creating new – sometimes erotic – possibilities.
This idea characterises the work of the late Bob Flanagan, an American performance artist who dedicated his cystic fibrosis-ravaged body to adventures in sadomasochism. He famously appeared in the banned video clip for Nine Inch Nails’ “Happiness in Slavery” (1992) in which an operating table machine claws at his skin, eliciting arousal until it disembowels and turns him into mince.
It’s seen too in the work of Australian artist Mike Parr, who is concerned primarily with endurance and voyeurism. In early works from the ’70s, he hacked into his prosthetic arm before a startled audience, performed various “psychotic operation(s)” and sewed a fish onto his skin.
It’s also behind the surgical fantasies staged by performance duo Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and Caprice (Léa Seydoux) at the centre of David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future. The earlier artists explain my boredom with the Canadian filmmaker’s self-referential, uneven new film. Cronenberg has always gleefully recycled his work, looping around diseased metropolises, dissociative states and depictions of the human body grown divergent and feral. But this return to body horror is a rare instance where the resurrection of former ideas reveals nothing new. What is doled out in Crimes of the Future has already been dramatised with more vigour and flamboyance by this director and others. “The new flesh” feels old.
The film’s staleness may have to do with the source material. The title is cribbed from Cronenberg’s unrelated earlier film and the script was written more than 20 years ago. In this imagined future, pain has almost been eradicated, bodies are sprouting “neo-organs” and body modification artists are sanctified celebrities. Technology and the state are consumed with problems of the body. The National Organ Registry logs new growths. A company named Lifeform Ware manufactures items that manipulate the body into submission: a levitating bed pod that moulds itself around evolving muscle, a bony “feeding” chair and a coffin/autopsy machine that is the tool of choice for artists Caprice and Saul.
Shot in Greece – and Cronenberg’s first film without cinematographer Peter Suschitzky since Dead Ringers (1988) – its images are far warmer than his typical icy sheen. Here everything is pale or jaundiced, yellow light streaming through dirty windows. Many shots recall the unremarkable gloom that pervades streaming television: all inky shadow, no compositional grace.
The flesh excursions are largely relegated to the theatres of performance artists, who stitch their lips closed, carve their faces and show off bodies proliferating with ears. But it’s Caprice and Saul who are seemingly its most beautiful, beloved practitioners – so much so that Saul, constantly “cooking up” new organs, is hilariously encouraged to enter an “inner beauty pageant”. Confined in their mechanical coffin, in front of a dazed audience, Saul comes under the knife – a gelatinous controller attached to Caprice’s stomach – which extracts the latest growth to inhabit his body. As Saul’s body is torn into, his face reveals near ecstasy. A nervy bureaucrat, Timlin (Kristen Stewart) sums up this act in bumper sticker form: “Surgery is the new sex.”
The masochism in Crimes of the Future is textbook and finds the director repeating himself. As Caprice tongues Saul’s stomach – recently installed with a functional zipper by a plastic surgeon – it feels like a less-fascinating redux of the vaginal slit stomach in Videodrome (1983) or the licking of leg scar tissue in Crash (1996). Saul and Caprice – covered in small, bloody incisions, embracing in their autopsy machine – or the random couples slicing their skin on the side of the road with exultant moans, don’t offer anything we didn’t know about gratification through pain.
I was more rapt by the jittery, hilarious tension between Saul and Timlin, where Stewart is perfectly cast but underused as an organ obsessive barely able to put a lid on her crush for the artist. The film’s best moments are when they appear together, never able to communicate with ease. In one scene, Timlin plunges her fingers into Saul’s mouth, eyeing off his tonsils, which soon turns into a sloppy smooch. “I’m not so good at the old sex,” Saul says, retreating.
Cronenberg’s dialogue always has the stilted air of B-grade films: cold, direct, funny, with an abundance of exposition. This has served the mood of his films well. In Crash, for instance, he transported J. G. Ballard’s 1973 British novel of car crash fetishists to Toronto, as the world approached the shiny void of Y2K. This was a film that understood the era’s emptiness and static relations, where feeling could only be jolted by extremity – in this case, sex colluding with compressed chrome. More recently, his Don DeLillo adaptation Cosmopolis (2012) was a blunt, ridiculous dissection of the cruelty and delusions of the 21st century’s ultra-wealthy.
Crimes of the Future has some of this stiff, humorous energy but it reaches for something more emotionally hefty – on grief and connection – which it never really reaches. This is especially notable when Saul and Caprice decide to perform a live autopsy on a murdered boy, whose father leads a pack of insurgents accelerating their bodies’ evolution. As Caprice encircles the small corpse, delivering teary platitudes about ugliness seeping into innocence and the lives of children destroyed in an unforgiving world, the mood is muddled – the scene is not exaggerated enough to satirise the self-important artist but hasn’t enough drama and specificity to feel meaningful.
Crimes of the Future is the fourth collaboration between Mortensen and Cronenberg and coincides with a period of the director’s career that has been more focused on the psychological rather than say, florid, bursting viscera. But the body, particularly Mortensen’s brawny one, has always told the story. In A History of Violence (2005) we watch the actor’s face, which first appears as the embodiment of clean-cut rural heroism, morph into a greasy madman, shattering the delusion of small-town American benevolence with it. In the Russian mafia thriller Eastern Promises (2007), a case of mistaken identity turns into a bathhouse blood fest, Mortensen’s naked body thrown around like a mop. Even his most restrained role for the director – as Sigmund Freud in A Dangerous Method (2012) – was characterised by his cavalier posture. As Saul, Mortensen is a sad little sap draped in monk-like black cloth, spluttering and coughing, uncertain if he should continue to clamp down on his unruly body parts or acquiesce to their needs.
This may seem ripe for some reductive moral proclamations about “human nature”, but Cronenberg is uninterested. In Crimes of the Future, he’s more fascinated by how the borders between trash and sustenance, disease and health, are porous. It’s a film that lodges itself in the sticky space of transformation but is limited in imagining new frontiers for the body.
Crimes of the Future is showing in selected cinemas.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 20, 2022 as "Vile bodies".
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