David Cronenberg’s ‘Crimes of the Future’ Introduces Autopsy as Performance

The writer-director can still bring the cringe—and the danger


A kind of career-capping, gross-out victory lap, David Cronenberg’s new film, Crimes of the Future, is a triumph of perverse auteurism. To say no other artist could’ve splooged this particular volatile compound is the obvious everything: Ever since he was a Toronto college grad, in the late ’60s, Cronenberg has been pursuing his unique and unfashionable dreads and obsessions about the human body, how much or little of it rhymes with our idea of who we are, and how technology can change it in ways we cannot foresee. His idea, in an elemental way, “body horror” has become a cliche—except in his sweaty paws. If you feared Cronenberg was mellowing in his old age—he’s 79 this year, and his last films, from 2011’s A Dangerous Method to 2014’s Maps to the Stars, were odd but almost sedate—then grab your Dramamine and strap in.

“Long live the new flesh,” as his characters are fond of saying—it may not be exactly new anymore, but it’s still a subversive perspective, even in a culture for which body mods are virtually a banality. The many mid-film walkouts at the Cannes Film Festival would doubtless agree. Already notorious, the new film is the second Cronenberg production to bear this title—the first, an experimental feature released in 1970, limns a near-future where a cosmetics-caused plague wipes the earth of women, leaving a deranged landscape of fetishizing men, including some who spontaneously generate new organs in a bio-parody of childbirth. 

This idea explodes in the new film, minus the gender schism. Here, in a mutated future in which only analog technologies work and humans no longer experience a pain response, we have Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), one of a minority whose body is in a constant state of inner self-generation, producing new and pointless organs, which must be regularly removed. He and his partner-mate Caprice (Lea Séydoux)—she was a trauma surgeon, obsolete now—exploit the situation by staging performance art via a “legendary” remote-controlled autopsy table, cutting Saul open, in close-up, and removing the new viscera pieces before a hushed audience.

“I never really know when I’m working on something new,” Saul grunts when asked about his art. Saul’s dilemma is indeed systemic—Mortensen’s performance is a rumble of phlegmy hacks and groans, as his “normal” systems battle the new growth, unseen. (He has to sleep and eat attached to elaborate Cronenbergian bio-machines that create weightlessness and peristalsis, respectively—at least that’s what I think they’re doing.)

Shot in Greece as though it were the decrepit lawless Zone from Naked Lunch, the film busily crafts a threadbare society around this freak-out, from the unofficial-covert National Organ Registry (manned in a shabby office by subculture obsessive Don McKellar and his assistant, the demurely turned-on Kristen Stewart, who wants to explore Saul’s interior in other ways) to an art-skeptical African detective (Welket Bungué), who connives to have Saul act as his informer investigating the “insurrectionary” cabals that lurk on the evolutionary fringe. Mixed in is the murder of a young boy, whose corpse the father (Scott Speedman) offers to Saul and Caprice for an autopsy-performance—in the name of heralding the arrival of a new physiognomy that has adapted to eat plastic. Adapt, after all, or die.

Unpacking this madness—the prostitutes who are knife-sliced recreationally, the fact that “surgery is the new sex,” the pair of sexy biotech repairwomen who turn out to be driller killers—isn’t a breeze, but Cronenberg at his best has always been a rogue quantity, a lone excavator digging at discomforting and helpless universalities about disease and aging and identity that don’t conveniently fit into whatever the contemporary zeitgeist would tell us is proper.

In Crimes of the Future, Cronenberg doesn’t celebrate the mutative-ness of the body—he’s clearly fearful of both the body’s autonomous betrayals (this film, like many of his others, pulses with carcinophobia) and its corrupting interface with technology. Adorning the body does not impress him—his concerns are with the unseen inside. (Another perf artist, his naked body covered with grafted human ears, is dismissed by one character as being a poser; the ears “don’t even do anything, they’re just for show.”) At the same time, the filmmaker plainly groks the sexual yank of the changing body’s unvoiced will—and it’s the fully imagined context of this conflict that we know as Cronenbergian.

Even if Crimes of the Future were simply a valedictorian flourish—indexing the warped gyno tech design from Dead Ringers, the fleshy thing-ness from Naked Lunch and eXistenZ, the mutant conspiracy from Videodrome, the fear of disease from The Fly, the wound sex and perf art from Crash, etc., into a great seething Cronenberg stew—it’d still be one of the new decade’s crucial movies. But its vivid conceptions and tanks of psychosexual fuel set it apart in today’s landscape, where Cronenberg’s ideas feel more dangerous than ever. 

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