A line from Crimes of the Future, David Cronenberg’s latest film, has been trailing it around with the campy insistence of an old-fashioned ad campaign: “Surgery is the new sex.” On receiving this information, a skeptical Saul Tenser, played by Viggo Mortensen, asks, “Does there have to be a new sex?” “Yes,” he is told by Kristen Stewart’s Timlin, with the assurance of a fashion influencer, “It’s time.”
It’s time for a new sex? For Timlin, infatuated with Saul, this might mean, “It’s time for a new sex act—sex between us.” For devotees of Cronenberg’s cinema, the phrase more pertinently means, “It’s time for a new Cronenberg film.” The director has been spawning new versions of sex since the start of his career. Murder is the new sex (Videodrome, 1983), car accidents are the new sex (Crash, 1996), commodity fetishism is the new sex (Cosmopolis, 2012), and so on. To get in the mood for new sex, you might resort to the rave drug that Cosmopolis calls “novo,” and afterward, you may need to be cured of bugs at the “Institute of Neo-venereal Disease” (the first Crimes of the Future, 1970). At all events, the precondition for making it with anyone in Cronenberg is making it new.
New sex in Cronenberg is typically linked to the monstrous body, which teems with superfluous inner organs and, when these deviant parts take an extroverted turn, manifests weird excrescences, secretions, and perforations on the skin. Where the sex organs of this body are concerned, it’s often hard to make the obvious discriminations. In Rabid (1977), a penile attack weapon emerges out of a vaginoid fold hidden under the arm; in Cosmopolis, conversely, a character is convinced that his penis is withdrawing into his abdomen. Yet in a sense Cronenberg’s new sex is not so outlandish—and indeed may lay claim to a certain realism. Our experience of the body, not to mention our dreams and fantasies about it, is never very far from creepy, uncanny, disintegrative; if you live long enough, or even just through puberty, your body will eventually come to seem horrendous.
But whereas new sex in previous Cronenberg films genuinely caught what we might call the abnormity of ordinary sexual being—that is why it can strike viewers as both revolting and sexy—the news about sex from his latest film, at least as far as men are concerned, is that, like a vestigial organ, it’s withering away. Guys have lost their zeal for it. Never, at least, was there so stagnant a Cronenberg protagonist as Saul Tenser. He is not a young or well man: he has trouble sleeping and eating. Forever coughing and clearing his throat, he stalks through Greece with a telling Oedipal limp. His face has all the emaciated angularity of the Knight in The Seventh Seal, and his thickening body is literally cloaked in the “forgiving” medieval habit of Death in that same film, as though Death and the Knight had slumped into a single figure whose only amusement was computer chess. But if Tenser’s cowl is Gothic, his way of wearing it as a neck gaiter also makes it feel ominously contemporary, reminding us more of Covid-19 than the Black Plague.
These appearances are not misleading: Tenser does have a disease—not buboes or Covid, but “accelerated evolution syndrome,” which causes him to generate “neo-organs” in his viscera. No one will fail to grasp the film’s insinuation that this plethora of organs ultimately points to an insufficiency: the principal organ men use for sex has disappeared in the crowd. When Timlin tries to kiss Saul, for example, he recoils with the words, “I’m not very good at the old sex.” Their encounter is more than a quaint holdover from the ancien régime, it’s a kiss of the future—to adopt Cronenberg’s habit of new coinages, a “neo-osculation.” Timlin first explores Saul’s mouth with her fingers, as though it were an orifice requiring such retractive foreplay, or as if she were preparing not to plant a kiss so much as to implant one. The signature gesture of the old sex has been refashioned according to the neo-sexual surgical protocols. Although Timlin seems only to want to make out with the man, she hardly knows how to go about it; she’s the apprentice here, this aggressive woman suddenly rendered maidenly. And Tenser cannot help her lose this particular virginity. For all that his inside parts may be simmering, his outside ones are stock-still.
Who is this new man, totem of the new sex?
If Cronenberg’s persistent iterations of new sex never deviate from familiar deviancies (pedophilia, sadomasochism, fetishism), they find novelty through their allegorical suggestiveness. This is consistent with their genre, the horror film. Is The Birds a parable of the earth’s despoiling or of desegregating the schools? Is The Shining a metaphor for American imperialism, the moon landing, or the Holocaust? These films get their force not from answering these questions, which they must never do, but from cannily floating them into mere speculation. To succeed in the genre, allegory must remain ambiguous, never confirmed. To this end, Cronenberg’s new-sex scenes are shaped with a shrewd eye to the anxieties of the present, whether that’s the present of Videodrome’s 1983 (fear of propaganda, television, cancer); Crash’s 1996 (fear of the proliferation of pornography, the enervating effects of mass media); or Crimes of the Future’s 2022 (fear of plastic and gender-affirming surgery, abortion, pandemic, cancer again). Whatever the new sex is, it’s always also a vehicle for the spectacular eruption of contemporary anxieties onscreen.
Beyond the hottest fronts of today’s culture wars, it’s hard to say when and where Crimes of the Future is set. The signage is Greek; and toppled ships recall both the Odyssey and a once robust shipping industry. Beds and chairs have gone “smart” with customized computer programs, and cameras can be worn as rings; but phones are the oblong boxes of the 1990s, and bureaucracies are ramshackle offices with no hard drive in sight. Even dress tells us nothing: the women of the future wear timeless red carpet and business casual; the men go about in classic grunge. What we do know about this purported future, to say nothing of its crimes, is that physical pain and infections have been eliminated from the human condition. As a result, surgery is not only elective, it’s recreational. Small groups gather in the streets, caressing each other with razors. A cocktail party features a woman having her foot sliced open with a pizza cutter—keloids, evidently, being the new tattoos. These public displays of affliction—“desktop surgeries,” they’re called—don’t seem to be endorsed by the state, but nor are they illegal. They’re indecent, they’re taboo, and they have become, inevitably, the new frontier in performance and conceptual art. “Everyone wants to be a performance artist these days,” we’re told, “but not everyone can do it.”
In the surgery-as-performance art world, Saul and his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux) are a star team. Saul provides the neo-organs; Caprice, a former trauma surgeon, tattoos and ablates them for the audience. Her work as an artist in no way conflicts with her Hippocratic oath. She considers Saul’s neo-organs tumors: in the act of excision, she tends to him and their art simultaneously. She also works in concert with the state and its ongoing investigation into the “new vice”—not the public surgery but the “evolutionary derangement” of the population. Caprice and Saul meet Timlin and her colleague Wippet (Don McKellar) when they deliver their portfolio of neo-organs to the National Organ Registry, a state bureau charged with tracking the spread of accelerated evolution syndrome. There, state biopolitics and the author function meet in an effort to catalog and archive the rapidly evolving human body, the artists’ growing body of work, and the state of the body politic.
Most of the crimes in Crimes of the Future are, quite strictly, crimes against humanity. The New Vice Unit is not charged with protecting humans so much as the category of “the human,” which the new, neo-organ-producing mutants are threatening to supersede. We learn that neo-organs can be passed down genetically. Once organized into systems (digestive, reproductive, endocrine), these neo-organs threaten to reproduce organisms that can no longer claim, as Wippet says, to be “human, at least in the classical sense.”
The humanists in this film (the state, Saul and Caprice) are pitted against characters that can only, in their countervailing efforts, be called the post-humanists: those who welcome this accelerated evolution for its political and aesthetic virtue. They include a plastic surgeon who hosts an “Inner Beauty Pageant,” with prizes for the “Best Original Organ with No Known Function” (Saul has this one in the bag), and an underground group of activists who have discovered that, with a little surgery, they can turn their neo-organs into a digestive system capable of consuming plastic. Their leader, Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman), lectures Saul on the political value of letting their mutant bodies evolve to recycle industrial waste. Moral duty demands that we become humanoid composters. “Our bodies were telling us it was time to change…time for human evolution to sync up with human technology,” he says. Yes, it’s time.
Because of his accelerated syndrome, which apparently reproduces according to Lamarckian rather than Darwinian logic, Dotrice fathered a son who could metabolize plastic without surgical intervention. The rebel movement’s first “naturally unnatural” product, the child was named Brecken—one who has broken the norms. In the film’s opening scenes, Brecken eats a plastic trashcan. He is subsequently killed by his mother, who insists that the child is no human at all: he is “a thing, a thing that my husband invented to torment me.” This infanticide differs from the film’s other crimes of the future: it is committed not against humanity but against post-humanity. It gives the body radicals their first martyr.
Every vision of the future, as the queer theorist Lee Edelman points out, has the figure of the Child, capital C, as its justification; this Child is typically imagined to reinforce, under the sponsorship of the future, the ideological norms of an imaginary past. As a child, Brecken is not exactly an innocent: he has an appetite, already our downfall, and he’s murdered for that. But as the Child, he is the political battleground between his mother’s humanist fury at his deviance and his father’s post-humanist insistence on using that deviance to “make a statement,” that is, to promote a new normal. Brecken most conveniently serves this function when he is dead—when he can be talked about without being able to say anything for himself.
His autopsy, performed by Saul and Caprice at the climax of the film, is the ideal occasion for assembling a public to decipher what the Child’s body means. It’s a postmortem divination: just so might the ancient Greeks have gathered around a sacrificed animal to read the future in its entrails. The underlying assumption is that, because it is the Child, it will tell the truth, in the weird way that a corpse always seems to be looking us straight in the eye. But the film never makes clear what we see in Brecken’s contested insides, except the fact that they are always already broken-into.
We do know, of course, what various parties mean for us to see. The post-humanist advance guard, represented by Brecken’s father, want us to see Brecken’s naturalness: a biological validation of the surgically engineered plastic-digestive tract that would allow us to survive in a world we have laid to waste. The humanists want us to bear witness to Brecken’s normality: Timlin has intervened to replace his innovative intestines with the traditional kind, complemented with traditional tattoos (“Mother,” an anchor, a heart). These two notions—naturalness and normality—are making the same claim to authenticity, though apparently with reference to very different objects. “Apparently,” because what, finally, do we know? Without the tattoos, or the equivalent captioning provided in a later explanation, what viewer could tell the difference between the viscera genetically engineered by Brecken’s father and the viscera that Timlin has deceptively replaced them with? And by what imaginable standard would one set of organs seem more natural or normal than the other? Or more repellent? We’re neither horrified nor shocked at this climax so much as baffled by the void at the heart of “what the body naturally means.” We see the Child’s monstrous body, but we cannot read it in either a normative or nonnormative key. In the current cultural polemics surrounding the Child, in which everyone claims to be speaking for nature, Cronenberg keeps a useful silence.
Had the film ended with Brecken’s autopsy, the question of what the body naturally means might have remained, true to genre, unnervingly open. In other ways, too, Cronenberg has been thwarting the expectations of viewers looking for a political message behind Crimes of the Future’s overdetermined imagery and dialogue: Would the infanticide suggest abortion? Does the fact that Brecken was, as one character insists, “born that way” (into digestive mutation) champion a queer politics? We must entertain, but can never settle, such questions. The film’s final scene, however, produces a clarity of meaning that might be a disappointment to those who delight in body horror’s polymorphic perversions and revel in its production of multivalent and all the more unmasterable anxiety. Cronenberg, having disrupted norms, seeks to restore them.
Focused on Brecken’s body, Saul has been neglecting his own. Having delayed his latest neo-organ excision, he has grown especially weak, but his weakness also appears to have offered him new, unexplored sensations. He wakes from sleep with his customary scowl, but Caprice senses something different in it. “You were in pain,” she says. “What’s it like?” “It’s hard to be clear about it,” he responds. “It becomes part of the dreaming, mixes with the emotional pain of the dreaming. It’s confused.” The pair, whose intimacy thus far has only been expressed through surgical penetration, come together in a tender, albeit upside-down, kiss. (In Cronenberg, this fall into sentimentality will never be perfectly “straight.” It might be more honest if it were.)
Almost in the simplest digestive sense, the film’s last scene is cathartic. Saul is back to eating—or trying to eat, his digestive tract frustrating his best efforts. Caprice brings him a synth bar (chewy and chocolatey, but made of plastic), which he chomps and swallows. She films the scene, which we see through her ring-camera’s black-and-white image. A tear appears at the edge of Saul’s eye, and the corner of his mouth curls in his first smile. He seems to have heeded Dotrice’s political program: listened to his body, accepted his neo-organs, turned his back on surgery, and refused to conform to the image of the “human in the classical sense.” In succumbing to his post-human condition, though, he has also recovered very basic human sensations of pain, hunger, eros. We might even say he has recovered a quite normal relation to them, without comatose apathy, smart chairs, or surgical sex. The crimes of the future must remain uncertain; but its norms, evidently, are nothing new.
. . .
Anna Shechtman is a Klarman Fellow at Cornell University where she will begin as an assistant professor of English in 2024. D.A. Miller was for many years John F. Hotchkis Professor at the University of California, Berkeley. His recent publications include Second Time Around: From Art House to DVD and Hidden Hitchcock. The BFI recently issued a new edition of his volume on Fellini’s 8½.