David Cronenberg’s Tableaux of Pain and Pleasure

David Cronenberg’s Tableaux of Pain and Pleasure

His latest film, continues a decades-long project to explore the limits of the body and the supposed rules of reality.

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David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future begins with the killing of a child. One evening, in a villa off the coast of Athens, a young boy is smothered to death by his mother. It’s a heinous, unnatural crime, recalling not only lurid tabloid narratives but a more general sentiment about humanity’s lurch toward catastrophe. Beyond the villa, amid the Aegean’s waters, we glimpse a capsized vessel.

Yet, to the naked eye, this child is a kind of monster, a deviation from the so-called natural order. From his mother Djuna’s perspective, we see the boy, Brecken, eating the edge of a plastic trash bin, his crunching noises so audible that Djuna’s disgust, if not her subsequent act of violence, might seem perfectly reasonable. Here is a thoroughly aberrant world wrought by ecological crisis, one of apocalyptic, rubble-strewn expanses and poisoned gray-green interiors. Humans have lost the ability to feel pain, opening the floodgates to bodily experimentation even as people like Djuna are driven wild by such perversions.

The films of David Cronenberg have always plumbed a common dilemma: the panic and pleasure that ensue when the body is unleashed from its normative trappings, typically through a type of fornication with technology or scientific intervention—those defining forces of modern life. “The new flesh,” the term coined in the Canadian director’s first masterpiece, Videodrome (1983), applies to every one of his films, which dramatize the political and existential fallouts of reconfigured bodies—flesh that defies the supposed rules of reality.

The “body horror” genre may find its most stable point of origin in Cronenberg’s work, but the term also strikes me as a narrow descriptor for an oeuvre whose conceptual provocations rival in adventurousness, if not surpass, its spectacular effects. Cronenberg’s is a cinema of ideas more than it is about shock-and-awe, though the tactility and indelibility of his bloody images—the exploding head in Scanners (1981), a woman’s wart-speckled, detached womb in The Brood (1979)—certainly informs his overarching project.

The body, that object of eternal obsession, perpetually surveilled and self-policed, is a site of great danger. Errant bodies, then, are as much a threat to the status quo, testing our willingness to embrace the monstrous. In Crimes of the Future, prior to a scene in which a live surgery is staged as a public performance, the phrase “Body is reality” flashes on a small television set: It is through the body, Cronenberg argues, that we experience and make sense of our lives; through the body that ideas, desires, and fears find palpable expression. If his films promiscuously stake out the possibilities of the future and the novel ways in which we might inhabit it, then the body is a testing ground where the ineffable and the unthinkable might be grasped for the first time.

Crimes of the Future features a constellation of personalities, embodied by an ensemble cast whose clashing performance styles seem to form discrete worlds. There is Kristen Stewart’s Timlin, a twitchy bureaucrat, and Don McKellar’s Wippet, her ostensible supervisor at New Vice, a secret government agency tasked with cataloging new human organs. Despite Wippet’s position, this heedless man covertly spearheads an illicit “Inner Beauty” pageant, in which his dispassionate workplace demeanor toward bodily mutations assumes its true form of attraction and worship.

Berst and Router, played by Tanaya Beatty and Nadia Litz, are a pair of droll mechanics-cum-assassins who strip off their clothes and hop into one of the film’s many beetle-shaped robo-beds—womblike machines that tend to an entire spectrum of physical needs (sleep, sex, surgery)—as giddily as they might put a power drill through someone’s head. Then there is Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), our sickly, perpetually cloaked protagonist, a man whose body generates unusual new organs, and who coughs and shivers his way through the film as he uncovers the conspiracy surrounding Brecken’s death. Caprice (Léa Seydoux), a sad-eyed, statuesque beauty, is something like Tenser’s life partner; together they mount performance art pieces in which Caprice conducts surgery on Tenser’s splayed-open body with divine flair.

The opening murder gives way to an awakening, with Tenser emerging from his robo-bed after a restless night of sleep. In dreams, he experiences pain, that lost sensation whose resurgence here suggests the taste of a rare delicacy. In this future, physical pain and infectious diseases have effectively become a thing of the past. Like junkies, some people take to the streets for quick fixes of bloodletting, and in elite circles, performance art involving bodily mutilation has become the rage. One artist is “all ears,” having sealed his eyes shut and stitched dozens of human ears to different parts of his body (his dancing, one character observes, is more impressive than his attempt at conceptual art); another artist inserts blades into her visage, yielding shark-fin-like protrusions on her immaculate skin in an attempt to fix the discrepancy between her outward appearance and her inner life.

With Crimes of the Future—a screenplay written in the 1990s—Cronenberg returns to original storytelling after a period of more than 20 years doing for-hire projects and directing other writers’ scripts. As visceral as they are, Cronenberg’s films—particularly the ones he’s written—are also hyperverbal, prone to extended bouts of crisp, explicative dialogue that is both bleakly funny and teasingly self-aware. Stewart’s Timlin, the movie’s most voluble character, offers enthusiastic interpretations of Tenser and Caprice’s performances and rattles off New Vice’s code of procedure between her desperate attempts at seducing Tenser. Her repression and excitability prove a stark contrast with the demeanor of her world-weary object of affection, who, turning to Caprice after hearing the younger woman’s whispered flirtation (“Surgery is the new sex”), tempers all her breathless theorizing with a shrug: “Just another epiphany.”

Meandering from character to character, epiphany to epiphany, Crimes of the Future abounds in gratuitous, appendage-like excursions that—much like Tenser’s foreign organs—gesture at strange new possibilities without serving an obvious narrative function. In one scene, Caprice is aroused by the newly installed zipper on Tenser’s stomach; in another, the couple strip off their clothes and enter the robo-bed together, exulting in the small incisions it makes all over their bodies. For whatever reason, Tenser eats his meals while sitting in a creaky, reptilian chair that constantly shifts and groans. Inscrutable flourishes like this evoke a distant, unknowable future much more palpably than the sleek tendencies of modern science fiction, endlessly fascinated with advanced forms of artificial intelligence and virtual reality. We can’t explain or relate to the urge to sit around in such an unusual contraption, yet Cronenberg challenges us to imagine what the body might feel like, and what it might demand, should the future reinvent our palates to encompass such a need.

The film begins to assume more clearly the manner of a neo-noir when we discover that Tenser is a police informant. Then appears Brecken’s father, Lang (Scott Speedman), the leader of a dissident group whose members have surgically altered their bodies in such a way that allows them to feed off synthetic materials. These “freaks” intend to eat the world’s nonbiodegradable problems away. Lang approaches Tenser with an uncomfortable proposition: for his next performance, conduct an autopsy on Brecken’s corpse. If the world sees nothing but gross deviance in the bodies of Lang and his followers, perhaps Brecken’s body—that of the first natural-born plastic eater—can prove the naysayers wrong. Lang wagers that Brecken’s insides are not only perfectly human—evidence of our body’s natural evolution toward a more sustainable form—but also capable of catalyzing an entire paradigm shift that might ultimately rescue humanity from extinction. Such a shift, Cronenberg implies, requires asking a deeper question: Can we adapt in ways once thought foul and inconceivable to remake the world by other means?

In the words of Allegra Geller, the protagonist of Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, “People are programmed to accept so little, but the possibilities are so great.” Looking back at Cronenberg’s filmography, Geller’s observation might sound more like a threat than a call to liberation. Consider Shivers, his debut feature, in which a lab-manufactured parasite intended to help humans replace failed organs turns the residents of a high-rise into nymphomaniacal zombies; or Videodrome, in which James Woods’s Max ultimately ascends to “the new flesh” by putting a bullet through his head. Even eXistenZ, with its virtual realm that players access by plugging a port into their backs, is ambivalent about the game’s escapist alternative to the “most pathetic level of reality.”

Cronenberg is interested in the passions and follies of creators who commit to reality their wildest fantasies, with several of his characters persecuted for their work or met with terrible fates (a literal fatwa is issued against Geller, a video game designer, in eXistenZ). In the earlier phases of his career, the savagery of his films was reason for protest—Shivers caused the Canadian Parliament to reconsider the merits of a government subsidy program for Canadian filmmakers, and amid the media frenzy, Cronenberg suddenly found himself served with an eviction notice from his scandalized landlady. Perhaps because of his early experiences dealing with the threat of censorship and the outraged masses, Cronenberg’s films exude an air of quiet fatalism.

Crimes of the Future is certainly marked by this attitude, yet a very different sensibility emerges as well. It’s a startlingly romantic film—the first the director has made after the death of his wife—and its concluding shocks are softened with a sense of resignation.

In The Fly, Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum’s characters enjoy a romantic and creative partnership before the latter tragically metamorphoses into a humanoid insect; in Crash, James Spader and Deborah Kara Unger manage to reinvigorate their marriage and sex life by embracing an extreme fetish that brings them closer to death. Caprice and Tenser represent Cronenberg’s most well-adjusted couple, a mature iteration of the fraught relationships that often end in tragedy or death in the director’s work. For them, romance is as much an intellectual venture as it is a physical one. “In general, people savor the pleasures of the flesh only on condition that they be insipid,” wrote Georges Bataille in Story of the Eye, an observation that seems to apply to the evolved sensualities of Caprice and Tenser and their shrugging disinterest in “the old sex.” Tenser describes an erotic dream in which Timlin and Brecken, among others, are placed in the robo-bed, while he and Caprice jointly operate the machine’s controller. Bizarre as the fantasy is, Tenser’s confession is one of great passion, delivered with a gentleness and sincerity that does away with the vision’s indecency.

In the end, we never see Brecken’s real insides; the detective that Tenser has been reporting to sabotages the revolution by arranging for the child’s organs to be replaced before the climactic performance. When Tenser and Caprice slice him open, there is only toxic-green sludge and tainted, mangled entrails. We glimpse the possibility of a genuinely subversive performance, only to be met with the flip side, in which potentially transformative ideas can be eviscerated by remaining within the safe, easily manipulated realm of art. The state—with its vested interest in ensuring that people remain narrowly “programmed”—emerges as the clear villain. Meanwhile, Brecken’s “new flesh,” and the vision for the future it inspires, becomes for Tenser a promise rather than a warning. Tenser had always assumed that his strange new organs would likely kill him one day should they remain intact, but Brecken’s example leads him to reconsider. By excising his bodily mutations, he had shown himself fearful of the unknown, unwilling to take a chance on what lies within. Here, unlike so many of Cronenberg’s previous films, life endures amid endless repressive machinations, and so, too, comes a glimmer of hope.

In the final scene, Tenser eats the synthetic-waste chocolate bar manufactured by the plastic eaters, knowing its fatal effects on ordinary bodies—or rather, the bodies of the past. Caprice records the experiment, as Tenser achieves a kind of transcendence. A tear rolls down his ecstasy-stricken face: Is it pain or is it pleasure, or a feeling as yet unimaginable?

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