When you switch on a film directed by David Cronenberg—perhaps best known for “The Fly” and “Videodrome”—you can be fairly confident that you’re going to see strange and unsettling things happen to the human flesh depicted onscreen. (It isn’t for nothing that he’s been nicknamed the “Baron of Blood.”) And yet his most recent film, “Crimes of the Future” can only be described as “body horror” in the loosest sense of the term: the gore is positively restrained, as long as you aren’t too fazed by vaguely medical imagery. Rather, what come to the fore are philosophical questions about the very kinds of bodies Cronenberg has spent so much of his career stretching and contorting and reconciling.
(Spoilers throughout, although this isn’t a movie that depends on the element of surprise in order to work.)
“Crimes” is set in a distant, vaguely dystopian future where human beings have lost most of their sensitivity to pain. In such a world, the dominant avant-garde entertainment centers on the growth and tattooing of exotic internal organs—and their surgical removal in ritualistic stage shows, shot like stripteases as envisioned by H.R. Giger. Where ordinary human pleasures—food, drink, sex—have become passé, those in search of extreme experience must turn their attention to the tissues of the body itself.
Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), cared for by his assistant Caprice (Léa Seydoux, recently seen in “No Time to Die”), is an organ-grower par excellence—somehow capable of producing never-before-seen structures, and synthesizing wholly new hormones, within his flesh. Beloved by the adoring acolyte Timlin (Kristen Stewart, playing decidedly against type), Tenser finds himself incapable of relating to her in normal human terms; over the years his body has changed too much for that.
And that’s not the only cost that this new world seeks to exact. As the movie unfolds, Tenser comes into contact with a cultlike faction less interested in growing new organs than new organ systems: specifically, the development of new digestive tracts capable of consuming and processing the discarded plastics congealing in the world’s oceans. Such an evolution will mark the transition to a fully posthuman way of life, where the line between inorganic and organic is blurred. Tenser—notwithstanding his own professional affinity for biological-mutation-as-spectacle—finds that possibility discomfiting, almost unpalatable. At least at first.
At one of Tenser’s surgical “performances” early in the film, the name of his show is blasted across video screens in stark letters: BODY IS REALITY. No materialist—and this is a very materialistic film, in the philosophical sense—would argue otherwise. And yet if the body’s flesh is infinitely plastic, infinitely malleable for human pleasure and entertainment, on what basis can Tenser repudiate the proposed transition to a new kind of alimentation? What moral claim does the natural body qua body exert on him?
Like all Cronenberg films, “Crimes of the Future” is suffused with plenty of striking visuals: a Lovecraftian-looking “bed” that cradles and rotates Tenser to alleviate his pain as new organs grow within him; a man with ears all over his body, seemingly arranged in no pattern at all, slowly dancing before an entranced audience; a zipper sewn into Tenser’s abdomen to provide easier access to his vital regions (in the far future, peritonitis must no longer be a real concern).
Such images couldn’t help but remind me of an old Atlantic essay by Conor Friedersdorf on “the limits of diversity,” to which I’ve returned repeatedly over the years. Friedersdorf interviews “bio-artist” Adam Zaretsky, who exults in the prospect of using genetic manipulation to create children with “ostrich anuses and aardvark tongues and pig noses” as part of a push for genuinely radical tolerance. “What would degenerate human transgenic children look like?” Zaretsky muses. “What would be another aesthetic than Michaelangelo’s perfection of the human ideal? We could start with Cubism. What would Picasso make as a baby?”
Friedersdorf admits that Zaretsky “is the first person to evoke in me a gut desire for enforced sameness and suppressed diversity––a visceral reaction I cannot recall having before.” As Friedersdorf goes on to explain,
sanctity is a powerful driver of moral intuition for many, and  lots of Americans who aren’t particularly prone to disgust would, when confronted with antlered, aardvark-tongued babies, agree with Leon Kass.
“Repugnance,” he once wrote, “revolts against the excesses of human willfulness, warning us not to transgress what is unspeakably profound. Indeed, in this age in which everything is held to be permissible so long as it is freely done, in which our given human nature no longer commands respect, in which our bodies are regarded as mere instruments of our autonomous rational wills, repugnance may be the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity.”
But what happens if that voice of repugnance no longer speaks? At a gala event midway through the film, a young woman wanders about with gaping facial incisions, murmuring about her desire to be “exposed.” For all intents and purposes, she seems suffused with transcendent joy as she walks through the throngs of people about her.
What might drive her to such acts? Decades ago, Emmanuel Levinas argued that, on a phenomenological level, it is the presence of the face of others that immediately summons us to do justice, to behave ethically. “Crimes of the Future,” though, suggests that Levinas’s account was incomplete. Perhaps the face alone does not impose such an obligation: rather it is the wounded face, the bleeding face, that calls us to act and to help. And so, correlatively, it is only in performative expressions of our own vulnerability that we can “draw the attention” of others and impose a moral claim upon them. In a society where traditional morality has been long abandoned, absolute exposure, absolute suffering, is the only truth that still carries weight.
Is that the world we want? And if not, what should we do to stop it? The question remains unanswered; indeed, the film’s dark closing moments suggest that it is too late to change, and that the posthuman must prevail.
It is not, however, a destiny in which Cronenberg seems to exult. Indeed, “Crimes of the Future” is the ultimate late-career movie from Cronenberg, one that—intentionally or not—serves as a kind of philosophical referendum on the director’s whole corpus. In the face of an ascendant materialistic transhumanism, “Crimes” leaves open the whisper of a possibility that the body might not be meaningless after all—that, contra Tenser, it might not represent the final truth of reality.
And that is a very arresting thought in its own right.