Aging is a practice of managed decline. Bit by bit, the mind slows, the body goes, acquaintances pass, and, if a person is fortunate enough to survive long past it all, daily life becomes a series of painful trials, a great reduction of experience to the most basic tasks. We spend so much of our lives bathed in our own consciousness, yet only at the extremities of birth and death does it become bitterly clear how yoked the soul is to the body, and once the latter goes, that’s it.
Much great art has been made about this process—the works of Terence Davies come to mind—but much has also emerged from experiencing it. Some art historians attribute the sketchy brushwork and spectral figuration of the late-career paintings of Domḗnikos Theotokópoulos, otherwise known as El Greco, to his worsening astigmatism, a phase in which he both refined and exploded his common linkages between the human and the spiritual. J.M.W. Turner developed cataracts in old age, leading him to blur his pigments and create landscapes of unparalleled abstraction. And only once his health grew so shaky that he could no longer attend parties did Proust fully devote himself to literature. While bodily decline did not make these men artists, it helped to push them towards new and more fascinating modes of creation.
David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future explores the effects of aging an artist’s body of work—literally. Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) is a performance artist of the indeterminate future, a semi-famous man in a degraded, emptied-out world. Tenser is possessed of “Accelerated Evolution Syndrome,” a disorder in which the human body begins to change at a rapid pace. In Tenser’s case, that means the generation of novel organs, with purposes and functions “never before seen,” as his performance and romantic partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux) puts it—as well as quite a lot of pain. He sleeps in a bed—a bio-mechanical hybrid device, which looks like a beanbag chair made out of human skin—calibrated specifically to reduce his suffering, and he eats in a skeletal chair that rumbles and shakes, designed to help him swallow and digest the food that his body seems bent on rejecting. He obscures his face with a mask as he wanders the deserted, vandalized streets of an unidentified city very much like Athens, where the film was shot. His speech is scratchy and halting, constantly interrupted by coughing fits. Yet all of this suffering marks him out as unique, a rare specimen in a world from which pain has disappeared altogether and sex has been replaced by mutilation. Tenser and Caprice give voice to this special status in their popular art shows, in which Caprice slices open Tenser’s body and pulls out the rogue organs for all to see. “I don’t like what’s happening with the body,” Tenser explains. “Specifically, my body.” To excavate the body’s hidden work, to make public the changes underway in the private dark, forms a kind of rebellion against his decline, and perhaps against the decline of humanity in general.
Cronenberg first wrote the script for Crimes of the Future under the title Painkillers in the late 1990s, when he was still in his late 50s. In the interval between writing and filming, the 78-year-old director has caught up with his creation. Though Cronenberg has held onto a shockingly full head of white hair, he is still an old man, uninterested in tailoring his preoccupations to those of the contemporary film industry. Crimes, after all, is his first film in eight years, and it concerns itself almost exclusively with its creator’s existing body of work. The relationship between body and mind—and the frontiers of each—has been a fixation across Cronenberg’s entire career, from his earlier low-budget horror experiments to later forays into the unstable borderlands of identity, like Spider (2002) and A History of Violence (2005). These obsessions, along with a healthy dosage of grotesque prosthetics and practical effects, coalesced in the genre now called “body horror,” of which Cronenberg is the progenitor and undisputed master.
During the decade-ish between Shivers (1975) and The Fly (1986) he explored, again and again, the many ways in which human vices, weaknesses, obsessions, and aspirations manifest themselves in the body, the interior transferred to the exterior via a series of profound and often flat-out gross transformations. Consider Videodrome (1983), still his most transgressive film after almost three decades. James Woods plays Max Renn, a small-time TV executive who grows obsessed with videotapes of a low-budget pirate channel. As his obsession deepens, the station’s output grows more violent and sexual. His own body transforms to meet the signal, growing a vaginal slit into which mind-control programs can be inserted directly, like VHS tapes. Whether Max is hallucinating these transformations is essentially irrelevant, as his mind—and thus his behavior—has changed regardless.
During this period (give or take a Fast Company ), Cronenberg worked almost entirely inside the horror genre, and these films obey the demand for shocks and thrills. The Fly’s Dr. Seth Brundell (Jeff Goldblum) might interpret his transformation as the next step in human evolution, but the bulging, pus-soaked prosthetics tell a very different story; no amount of wall-crawling elation can disguise the insect body bursting out from beneath his skin. Even if he is in fact stopping a conspiracy to warp the minds of humanity, it is hard to get past the gun that has melted into Max Renn’s hand to form a new appendage. Such transformations are easy to write off as monstrous when the grammar of film all but instructs us to view them as icky. Yet Cronenberg has always had an ambivalent relationship with the genre he helped foster, and his films have never been morally straightforward. In The Brood (1979), Samantha Eggar’s character responds to the stress of her crumbling marriage and her separation from her child by unconsciously generating a whole new family out of her body, no husband necessary. These children mete out murder and mayhem upon the remains of her old life, responding to her repressed dismay. Many such scenarios fill Cronenberg’s filmography; rather than monsters barreling into everyday life, it is the conditions of that life that give rise to his horrors. Bodily transformation makes visible what is already present in the mind—he just uses a bit of latex for emphasis.
Cronenberg also grounded his early films in his own version of naturalism. Career-best performances from Woods and Goldblum were necessary to sell the outrageous transformations each man undergoes, highlighting that these mutations are happening to people rather than props. But especially in his 21st-century work, Cronenberg no longer seems terribly interested in recognizable human behavior and emotion. His shooting style has gotten clammy and his performers are increasingly mannered, surrounded by digital effects on overlit sets. He stages his adaptation of Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis (2012) almost entirely within a stretch limousine, filling the windows with highly unconvincing footage of passing traffic. The vehicle is host to a series of conversations about art and economics between a stony billionaire (Robert Pattinson) and a number of interlocutors, all delivered in a clipped, inhuman patter that saps even the most urgent topics of their drama. Even the bursts of political violence and chaos exist at a remove, never quite breaching the mirrored windows. An alienating artificial sheen rests on top of the proceedings, always reminding you that you are watching a movie—more precisely, a David Cronenberg movie.
All of this coalesces in the late, cold style of Crimes, which sees Cronenberg directing an original script for the first time since eXistenZ (1999). Its location photography is uncannily underpopulated with obvious matte paintings, a future without much life that does not serve the plot. All manner of unlike accents coexist without justification, a slightly alien feel common to European co-productions. Performances are similarly all over the map, from Kristen Stewart’s tic-heavy over-enunciation to Mortensen’s gravel-voiced grunting. All of their physical transformations are concealed, drawn out only to make art or a political point, and yet the future of the body, particularly Tenser’s, is under constant discussion. A government agency wants to catalog every corporeal change; a group of rebels who believe they understand evolution’s drift mutilate themselves to accord with its wishes; Caprice’s concern often tips over into horror. Meanwhile, Tenser’s increasing ambivalence diffuses out into the rest of the story: his pain is always present on his face, yet until he is sliced open, we are left to imagine its source. Like the process of evolution itself, Crimes is eternally unresolved, without an endpoint.
Some critics have dismissed the film as a nostalgic exercise, but Cronenberg does not mine his old tricks for familiar payoffs. Where recent body horror films like Titane (2021) take great pains to telegraph the thematic and narrative resonance of their transformations, Crimes is decidedly uninterested in audience comprehension or anything resembling entertainment. Even the centerpiece surgical scenes are more erotic than horrific: his characters take pleasure from these sequences, which Cronenberg shoots in close-up, all puckering wounds and steaming scars. He turns us into observers, peering in from the bleachers. As his characters mull over his obsessions out loud and at great length, Cronenberg presents the audience with a series of possible but conflicting interpretations without landing on any single one in particular. Discussion is prioritized over shock, contemplation over horror, the gaze over the gut. Even the most ostensibly straightforward “body-horror” touch—Tassos Karahalios’s character, Klinek the “ear man”—is played for an art-world joke. He prances around to techno while multiple characters stand on the sidelines and remark that his work has gotten a bit showy; after all, his new ears don’t even work.
In the film’s haunting final moments, Tenser gives up on his special bed and his breakfast chair and stops fighting the throat that won’t swallow. Instead, he asks Caprice for a new meal, a purple gelatin bar made out of pure industrial waste that certain rebels believe to be evolved humanity’s future food. Cronenberg leaves us with a grainy shot of Mortensen swallowing the food as a tear runs down his cheek, a potent metaphor for a filmmaker who has spent more than half a century exploring the body’s decrepit extremes without coming to any definite conclusions. Tenser is ending his rebellion, but against his body, or his life? Is he collapsing, or elevating? Cronenberg is observing his own death from a distance, and even if he doesn’t quite know how he feels, it remains a powerful sight all the same, groanings, tics, and agnonies intact.