David Cronenberg is back. The 79-year-old Canadian director has made a film for the first time in eight years. In the meantime he wrote the novel consumed and tried in vain to get a series for Netflix off the ground. For his new movie Crimes of the Future he dusted off a screenplay he wrote twenty years ago.
In the future of Crimes of the Future evolution has run amok. Mankind has gradually become accustomed to the extremely polluted nature. Some are learning to feed on plastic. People’s pain threshold is completely blurred. Couples work each other with knives and other sharp objects for an erotic release. “Surgery is the new sex,” they say. The ‘old sex’ doesn’t bother people much anymore. Shady government organizations are trying to curb the chaos in the world.
Artist Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) is constantly developing new, as yet unknown organs in his body. He has turned his condition into a profession with performances, in which trauma surgeon Caprice (Léa Seydoux) removes his organs in front of an eager audience. That premise gives the director of an oeuvre as rich as it is bizarre the opportunity to reflect on his own artistry in the autumn of his career with philosophical questions such as: “Can a tumor be a work of art?”
When I wrote the screenplay, no one was talking about microplastics in the human body
Cronenberg made earlier films such as crash (2004), which was about the erotic appeal of car accidents and videodrome (1983), in which a videotape is played in a belly. At the Cannes Film Festival dong Cronenberg with Crimes of the Future entered the competition, but he went home without a prize. During the festival he spoke relaxed with the press.
Cronenberg: “I don’t know if I had foresight twenty years ago. I like to leave that to others. But when I wrote the screenplay, nobody talked about microplastic particles in the human body yet. Today, a new variant is discovered in the human circulatory system almost every day. All kinds of surgery have now become much more accepted and almost commonplace.”
Evolution has run amok in your film.
“What you see in the film is simply how evolution works. It does not work towards an ideal; people don’t get better and more beautiful. Evolution has nothing to do with that. It ensures that people have the best chance of survival in an ever-changing environment. That could also mean that people will actually become more and more cruel and destructive.
“Evolution continues to work, including in humans. Currently, it has been shown that people can survive with microplastics in their bloodstream. That’s a huge surprise. You would expect something like this to be fatal or at least cause serious illness. The human body is constantly adapting to the new living environment.”
So the plastic eaters in your film are right?
“The plastic eaters are right. Maybe they are your neighbors.”
Where did the idea of ’surgery as the new sex’ come from? That is still quite unusual.
“I don’t know exactly where that came from, except that it is a logical continuation of my interest in both eroticism and surgery. Of course, such sex can only happen when the world is as far as it is in the movie: when people no longer feel pain and are immune to infection. In the movie, such surgery is not even a form of sadomasochism, because people no longer feel any pain at all.
“I think that our current society has gone too far in suppressing emotions, with or without the help of all kinds of narcotics. People take opiates because they don’t want to feel anything anymore. It is true that they have a kind of pleasure in doing so, but that is a very curious kind of pleasure. People go through life dull and numb. They have to resort to increasingly extreme means to still feel something. That could lead to a possible future, as can be seen in the film.”
Also read the review: Surgery is the new sex in Cronenberg’s ‘Crimes of the Future’
You also put forward a philosophy of what art is in the film.
“It came about very organically. I never started writing with that intention. But as soon as you take an extreme performance artist as the protagonist for a film, such questions arise. What is art? Is performance art real art? That comes entirely from the character. It’s not that I walk around with a weighty message to tell the world what art is. For myself I have never felt the urge to define what art is.
“A performance artist makes art of his own body. Such a person gives everything of himself to be able to make art. That’s basically what artists always do. A serious artist must have that dedication. That is why it is obvious to me that performance art is really art. Then, of course, you can distinguish between good and bad art. But that goes for any art form.”
Is the film also a kind of retrospective on your own career and your own work?
“There’s something in that. Although I wrote the film twenty years ago, I was no longer a young filmmaker even then.”
‘Crimes of the Future’ has been described as mainly a sad film.
“That is right. The film shows my struggle to stay positive. And my sadness that the world is in such a bad state. The characters lead lives of silent despair. They are desperate, but they do not fully understand why they are desperate. The social ties between people have been lost. This is especially apparent from the setting: dark colours, empty streets, dilapidated houses.”
Are you pessimistic about the future?
“I try to live in the moment. I would have a huge problem if I were constantly so concerned about the future of the planet that I couldn’t enjoy the present moment. I think we are destroying the planet right now. Whether that can be reversed remains to be seen.
“Yet I disagree with people who are so concerned about the future of the planet that they don’t want children. I have three children and four grandchildren. Children are the most wonderful thing there is. You can hardly understand what a human is if you have not raised children. They show you how wonderful and complex people are. It would be a shame if humanity were to die out, because no one wants to have children anymore. That could happen very quickly, by the way. That only needs to take one generation.”
five times it own body as art:
In the Netherlands, the Amsterdam artist Joanneke Meester caused quite a stir in 2007 when she exhibited a pistol made from her own skin. With the gem measuring six by three centimeters she wanted to express her ‘concern about the increasing violence in society’. Under local anaesthetic, a surgeon friend removed an eight-inch strip of epidermis from Master’s abdomen. She covered plastic rods with it.
Like Burden, the French Gina Pane (1939-1992) was an early icon of body art. Between 1969 and 1980 she performed ritual performances in which she used her body as material in an extreme way. She injured herself by driving nails into her arms or cutting herself in the eyes or lips with a razor. Artist Marina Abramovic is a great admirer of her work (and of Burden’s) and has Pane’s perfomance Auto-Portraits staged again in 2005 at the Guggenheim Museum. Before this, like Pane in 1973, she lay like a saint on an iron bed under which two rows of candles burned, until the heat became unbearable.
Between 1990 and 1993, the French artist Orlan (1947) manipulated her own face using plastic surgery to make it resemble famous paintings. During live performances, for example, she had ‘horns’ implanted just above her eyebrows. Her lips and cheekbones were also adapted to form after the likes of Da Vinci’s, among others Mona Lisa† During the operations, which were broadcast in various museums, Orlan was conscious and read to her audience.
American artist Chris Burden (1946-2015) pioneered the ‘body art’ movement in the 1970s with his extreme, life-threatening performances. His most famous work is the performance shoot, for which he was shot in the arm by a friend in 1971 with a .22 rifle. Laurie Anderson wrote a song about it: ‘It’s Not the Bullet that Kills You – It’s the Hole (for Chris Burden)’.
Other well-known works are trans fixed (1974), for which Burden had himself nailed to the roof of a Volkswagen Beetle in a crucifix position. For the life-threatening performance Prelude to 220, or 110 from 1971, he left it up to the public whether or not to electrocute him. Burden died of cancer at age 69.
Australian performance artist Stelarc (1946) has pushed and ‘improved’ his body to the limit by adapting it in all kinds of ways with modern technology. In 2007, for example, he had a third ear transplanted onto his forearm and expanded his body with a third robotic arm. By getting hung up on meat hooks or being tortured by robots, the human body becomes a relentless plaything of technology.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of June 1, 2022