David Cronenberg's Final Confessional

David Cronenberg's Final Confessional
On David Cronenberg's Crimes of the Future (2022)

One of the first things you’ll notice when watching Crimes of the Future (2022), David Cronenberg’s first film in eight years, is how much Viggo Mortensen looks like his director. He plays Saul Tenser, a performance artist with slicked back silver hair and a voice that's reduced to a deep, fading husk. His art is the public removal of the strange new organs that grow inside him, it makes him as attuned to his changing, ageing body as you’d expect Cronenberg’s work does for his. Naturally, he’s aware of just how close death is—whilst Mortensen is in his sixties, Cronenberg is nearly eighty—when he tells his artistic partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux), who removes the organs, that he didn’t think he was still able to produce anything new, she says “you always think that, and you’re always wrong”, “One day I’ll be right” he responds. At a certain age a person’s death becomes much scarier for those around them, those whose bodies haven’t been telling them of its coming for so many years. They can ignore all the little declines and the failures they can see, and put off the thought of any that they can't, as they slowly build. Much to the disappointment of his most superficial fans—who were excited by Cronenberg’s return to 'body horror' for the first time since eZistenZ (1999)—he shoots the body not with the erratic disgust of Videodrome (1983), but with the quiet acceptance of someone who has been looking at this stuff their whole life, and increasingly not from afar in some strange other, but within themself.

Cronenberg positions his body as the canvas, separating himself from the gore artists who take their pleasure, if through the veil of horror, in the mutilation of others. Or maybe he’s rejecting that distinction entirely, “you’ll never paint that flower” to quote Jean Cocteau’s Testament of Orpheus (1960), “an artist always paints his own portrait”. He’s certainly not above taking jabs at his imitators though, as with the hilariously hacky Ear Man (Tassos Karahalios). Unlike Saul who never knows what he’s working on next since it’s literally forming inside of him, his new organs (many, many ears) are stuck artificially onto the surface level. The stitches are visible, if not on show. It’s one of the film’s many brilliant bits of Cronenbergian literalism, bringing an idea both vividly to life—giving in clear and concrete form—and killing it, turning it from some unseen force to merely flesh. Ear Man is okay, Saul says, “if you like escapist propaganda”, it’s the kind of aggressively subtext-as-text work you’d expect from the A24 brand, films that can only point to their own ideas, to their importance, always telling you, as Ear Man says at the start of his performance, that it’s “time to listen”.

A character asks if Caprice isn't the real artist, she’s the one operating, the one actually doing, but as a director Cronenberg sees her like an actor, a camera person or a production designer. A director doesn’t do so much as is done to, other people deconstruct and perform not just their vision, but their inner-self, their internal organs so to speak. Before working with Saul, Caprice was just a surgeon, uncreative people according to this world, and so when she decides to work on a project of her own—opening up a dead child to prove that the organs that allowed him to eat plastic were naturally formed—it's explicitly political and therefore external. She says that she "wants to construct", which might not be so different to Ear Man. Saul says his work is more like literary criticism, he’s trying to find “the meaning locked in the poem”, showing an extraordinary amount of faith in the body, that there is something in it to be unlocked, that it isn’t all just meaningless gore. Though when the medium is the message, when “body is reality”, as Saul projects in bold letters during his performances, it's not so much that there’s an inherent meaning but one that is painted on. Histories of people, places and societies are etches in ribcages and livers; in a Godless world, that's the only mark they can leave on us.

Cronenberg isn’t trying to make enemies or start fights, he just has a darkly amused perspective which he turns on himself as much as anyone else. He ribs his tendency towards slogans—think “long live the new flesh”—something he was playing straight as recently as Maps to the Stars (2014). The small addition of “I heard” to the much promoted line “surgery is the new sex” by Saul fan-girl Timlin—a breathy Kristen Stewart, who is also turning her tics up to comedic extremes—brings it into a conversational context that makes it sound at best absurd, but mostly silly. Even sillier is when Timlin is hitting on Saul and he confesesses that he's “not very good at the old sex”. Never lingering enough to slip into self-pity, that line is also actively reframing their kiss, creating an almost visual sense of her tongue moving around the insides of his mouth, wet flesh exploring wet flesh; if Cronenberg wants to show the grotesque as normal, he must also show the normal as grotesque.

Pain and pleasure are seen so totally without distinction that it's hardly noted on by any of these character who can never resist turning a thought into an insincere art-world aphorism. Maybe they are just oblivious, enough room is left to believe this is all just extreme exhibitionism. Organs are “the most intimate things” and as much a source of pleasure for Timlin to look at as for Saul, who looks like he's orgasming when they're being cut out. But maybe some organs need removing, The Brood (1979)—which turns Cronenberg’s contempt for his recently divorced wife into a story of the archetypal evil feminine—is particularly nasty and pustulating. Better to be bled out than left to organise, as Saul’s neo-organs start to do. But it’s not like Saul really follows through with the ideas he sells, far from embracing the reality of his body, he tries to tame “its rebellion” by tearing it apart; do you really analyse a poem by destroying it? He might well argue so, that by bringing it into your own words you smash its perfectly whole state, a rather anti-politcial way of looking at art, as little hermetic objects, separated from interpretation and real life.

Neither bold nor stupid art has much of an echo in this cavernous and empty world. Shot in Athens which unlike Cronenberg's hometown of Toronto—whose lack of texture he has used to increasingly bizarre ends, casting it as an off-kilter Hollywood and New York—has a real sense of history. The old buildings are a reminder of change, of regimes passed and that one that filled their place, the first shot shows a half-sunken cruise ship left to rust. The political forces that brought the world to this semi-apocalyptic state are only lightly gestured towards, they're given no real shape, but their spirit is felt, at least abstractly. It seems impossible to imagine how this place came from what we know as Greece but evidently it did. Cronenberg doesn't take much interest in whether these huge changes are what caused the neo-organs to form or if they're a totally natural evolution, it's less relevant than the fact they are being monitored by the government. A body has formed to not just catalouge, but tattoo them, claim them as their domain; manifest destiny moving inwards, obviously paralleling abortion rights and especially transness when these “insurrectional organs” start to cohere and form new systems. The fear of these changes are superficial, beyond simply feeling wrong, the idea of being able to healthily consume one of the most difficult materials to dispose of doesn’t sound so bad. Bigotry is banal, maybe even laughable, but none the less deeply felt; a mother murders her own child when she sees him eating plastic.

The reveal that Saul is actually working undercover for these reactionary forces is as extreme an admission of guilt from Cronenberg as I have ever seen—at least in a film that doesn’t wade in narcissistic self-pity like Buffalo 66 (1998)—and certainly the most political. It’s the furthest thing from exhibitionism, there is nothing glamorous nor vulgar about it, it’s just thrown into the middle of a scene undistinguished, as if a long accepted truth. He doesn’t even allow for the possibility that he was smuggling smarter ideas into the reactionary horror form, “if you get any good at living undercover” Saul says, “part of you has to believe”. If there was any way that he wasn’t a reactionary, it was incidental. He names this film after Crimes of the Future (1970)—one of his earliest and ugliest films, where society collapses from a gender imbalance brought on by a disease in cosmetics killing every adult woman, in the aftermath men try to fill the void, I suppose, by putting on nail polish, which Cronenberg shoots like cannibalism—but it's not a remake, there are basically zero similarities, it's a reclaimation; he's resetting his whole career. There is something equally tragic and beautiful in regretting so much so late in life, and choosing to start again.

For all the film’s internal conflicts it isn’t really dialectical, both sides, like Cronenberg's work, were all for nothing. Saul was wrong, but Caprice wasn’t right. He helps her with her political art, but it only reveals lies planted by the same reactionary forces. And so the final scene doesn’t wrap up what came before it, but opens up something entirely different. Saul decides to face his body and try to eat plastic, Caprice films him, when he realises he can, that all these changes are moving in a coherent direction, that his body might contain some real meaning, tears roll down his face. It’s something like gender euphoria, a full and deep harmony with yourself, but it's also an acceptance of death, the ultimate trajectory of all changes in your body. When Cronenberg so casually brushed off Jung’s esoteric ideas in A Dangerous Method (2011), it seemed like a total rejection of anything spiritual. Cronenberg has always been an avowed atheist, though in Crash (1995) it does seem like all these empty people are reaching out towards something vaguely God-shaped, regardless of his actual existence. Yet Cronenberg shows this final scene from the perspective of Caprice’s camera in black and white, quoting The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). He manages to find a feeling as intense and profound as religion through only the body, it's not a culmination of all his work but a totally new relevation, something he never knew to look for. Even if he regrets everything else as much as he seems to, this incredible achievement might be enough to die happily with.