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Surgery Is the New Sex

David Cronenberg isn’t doing anything new in ‘Crimes of the Future,’ but one benefit of a decades-long obsession with portraying pleasure and pain is that he’s gotten very good at it

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When you think of David Cronenberg, something gross probably comes to mind. Maybe it’s the exploding head from Scanners; the deformed, vomiting face of a man-insect hybrid in The Fly; or the gun in eXistenZ made of human flesh and teeth-bullets. Cronenberg’s films are most often labeled as body horror, but the term isn’t fully encompassing. His work is often disgusting but rarely scary, at least not since the early days of Shivers and The Brood. Cronenberg loves the human body. He’s just not sentimental about it.

For more than 50 years, Cronenberg has probed humans like an alien experimenting on an abductee. His is a scientific endeavor, with the goal of discovering every single thing you can do with human flesh. Sometimes he slices it open. Other times, he leers like a drooling teenager over Debbie Harry’s breasts (Videodrome), Maria Bello in a cheerleading outfit (A History of Violence), or even Viggo Mortensen’s balls (Eastern Promises). Cronenberg is just profoundly attuned to the way the human form can arouse an audience’s interest, disgust, and excitement—sometimes all at once. In eXistenZ, the coder played by Jennifer Jason Leigh creates a VR system that connects directly into a flesh portal on the human back. Cronenberg could have emphasized horror in that moment, but instead he saw jacking in as an opportunity for jacking off and had Jude Law fellate Leigh’s lower back wound just for the sheer, confusing thrill of it.

Crimes of the Future continues the director’s obsession with pleasure, pain, and artistic theory. The film is set in an alternate world where the human body is suddenly evolving into varied, unstable forms. There are people like Saul (Viggo Mortensen), who rapidly grow new internal organs that must be removed in order to survive. He and his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux) turn his deformities into art, removing his organs in a ceremony that blends necessary surgery with elaborate performance art. Onlookers drink wine and snap photos mid-dissection. Pain is no longer a factor—we are told in an aside that it too has been removed from the human experience—and so the surgeries produce only orgasmic euphoria. “Surgery is the new sex,” a character plainly tells us, as if it wasn’t abundantly clear.

The real subject of Crimes of the Future is a more collective pain, the grinding agony of old systems giving way to new ones. Working from his own script, Cronenberg sets the action in Greece (although all the characters speak English), where the plot unfolds almost entirely on the steps of crumbling ruins or inside dank catacombs. Visually, Cronenberg and director of photography Douglas Koch, a first-time Cronenberg collaborator, lean into the chiaroscuro of classical art, creating the most painterly compositions in Cronenberg’s filmography. It’s a natural fit for his world of hidden sensations; audience members at the surgeries hide in shadowed corners, and Saul stalks the cobbled streets in a black robe, either to protect his wounds or to hide from his adoring fans. All is shrouded in darkness, except for the offices of the National Organ Registry, where government workers Wippet (Don McKellar) and Timlin (Kristen Stewart) are responsible for inking tattoos on new organs so the police can trace them, before they get drawn in by the allure of the Saul and Caprice. In some ways, their office—drab and bare, with unpainted walls and gray light streaming in from the windows—feels a world apart from the gothic horror outside. But in another sense, it’s just more evidence of a crumbling state. In darkness or in light, Cronenberg paints a picture of a world gasping its final breaths.

It’s clear that Cronenberg favors demise. His thematic obsessions have become even more transgressive with time, and the lines he crosses in deeper need of demolition. The hegemony of superhero cinema has ushered in a new era of sexlessness: It’s not just that today’s film icons don’t have carnal desires, but even their bodies seem invulnerable and detached from their reality. There are muscle-bound mountains like Jason Momoa and Chris Hemsworth; Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, and Brie Larson are covered from head to toe in latex and body armor; and Marvel’s idea of a sex scene involves two very good friends gently thrusting on a beach for a few seconds. It would be wrong to suggest Cronenberg’s film is a response to this new Puritanism—he has been hammering this particular nail for more than 50 years now—but highlighting the vulnerability of the human body certainly feels more radical now than at any point in his long career.

While hedonists and goody-goodies argue on Twitter over the sheer volume of sex in movies, Cronenberg has found a way to have a more interesting conversation about human sensuality. In Crimes, he casts three of cinema’s most desirable stars—Seydoux, Stewart, and Mortensen—and neither ignores nor indulges their sex appeal. Instead, he inverts it. Mortensen spends the whole film in deep states of physical decrepitude. The surgeries are supposed to be the sexy part (your mileage may vary on that); less salacious are the numerous scenes of him retching, spitting, and coughing through a simple meal as his body rebels against its most basic functions. Meanwhile, Seydoux and Stewart seem designed for Cronenberg; they have both been critical of Hollywood’s demands on women, and have both been comfortable exposing their bodies on camera for the sake of their art. Yet Seydoux is only unclothed in Crimes for a gruesome scene in which her body is methodically lacerated with a repurposed autopsy machine. Then there’s Stewart, the art house ingenue, creatively employed here as a buttoned-up bookworm type with the nervous energy of an ’80s-era Woody Allen heroine. Saul refers to her as “attractive for a bureaucrat,” and that’s about right. Cronenberg teases a sexual awakening for her—she sneaks out to attend the surgeries and lusts after Mortensen—but denies the satisfaction of bringing that arc to completion.

The reward, however, is in the journey. One of the benefits of Cronenberg’s decades-long obsession with portraying pleasure and pain is that he has gotten really good at it. In Crimes of the Future, he’s in director-as-mad-scientist mode, pushing our buttons from behind the curtain so he may delight in our responses. He’ll arouse your sensuality one minute and provoke a gag reflex the next. To those unaccustomed to his methods, it might seem sadistic (or at the very least unsettling), but once you get on his wavelength, it’s a hoot not too far afield from the commercial cinema that Cronenberg claims to reject. Blockbuster films excel at manipulating the audience’s emotions to sentimental extremes. Cronenberg does the same—he just aims for different spots of the body.

Other subplots in Crimes veer far away from even the possibility of titillation. Early on, a mother murders her child, which seems like a non sequitor—another of Cronenberg’s little delights—until it later connects to another underground community of people who have evolved to consume synthetics. Led by the desperate but charming Lang Dotrice (Scott Speedman), they turn plastic into something resembling a nutrition bar that sustains them but gruesomely kills anyone who inadvertently eats one; one suspecting stranger learns this the hard way, and so do we. Certain gross-out elements in Crimes of the Future will surely be too much for some viewers to bear, but, as is always the case with Cronenberg, transgression is an end unto itself. If you’re going to cross one line, you might as well cross all of them.

Most of these lines, however, have been crossed before. Despite the enthusiasm with which Cronenberg exposes our insides, there is something perfunctory about this latest effort. It’s perfectly reasonable for a filmmaker to continue to explore the same themes—auteurists might argue that’s exactly what a filmmaker should do—but this one feels like a greatest hits album. Cronenberg blurred the line between art and surgery more elegantly in Dead Ringers; there is a misguided subplot about an undercover cop that recalls the superior crime thriller Eastern Promises; the boundary-pushing connection between sex and technology recalls both eXistenZ and Crash. Cronenberg wrote Crimes of the Future more than 20 years ago, closer to when most of these other films came out. The themes aren’t quite redundant, and there are enough new ideas to justify the film’s existence, but if you’re familiar with his filmography, it’s hard to shake the feeling that these ideas haven’t been expressed more coherently elsewhere.

The harder you try to grasp his themes, however, the faster they slither out of your hand. Already, critics and fans have proffered their share of theories as to the One True Meaning of Crimes of the Future. Some see it as an eco-fable about the damage humans have inflicted upon their environment. Others see a meditation on Cronenberg’s identity as an aging artist, an interpretation reinforced by Mortensen’s perhaps-ironic comment that the film is “autobiographical” for Cronenberg. That’s clearly a troll job, but Crimes of the Future might actually be his most personal work. As characters careen toward a choice between continuing to explore the human body in their performance art or accept a synthetic future, it’s reasonable to see the film as a summation of Cronenberg’s experiences balancing art and commerce. Cronenberg is 79 years old, and this is his first film in eight years. In interviews, he has been ambivalent at best about making another film—although he did recently put his kidney stones up for auction as an NFT. But Crimes of the Future reinforces our need for an artist of his fascinations. With the Hollywood machine spitting out so many iron men and plastic women, someone has to keep probing the soft underbelly of the human soul.