Early on in Crimes of the Future, filmmaker David Cronenberg’s newly released big return to body horror, a man named Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) has his chest opened up for a rapt audience. A machine with fast-moving scalpels pulls apart his stomach and reveals his innards to the crowd. Meanwhile, his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux) paces around the room, fingering a squishy gadget with blinking lights to control this surgery, which serves no medical purpose. All the while, Saul moans and writhes, perhaps in pleasure, perhaps in pain, perhaps in a mix of the two.
Could this makeshift surgery be considered art? At least within the film’s world, yes. Caprice labels herself as a performance artist, though Saul is not merely her subject — he is a collaborator unto himself, and he considers his organs his creations.
While this may all seem rather strange, Crimes of the Future is, in fact, couched in recent art history. It draws on a kind of performance art in which artists use their body as their material, subjecting themselves to particularly painful situations that have involved bloodletting and the modification of their skin.
“Twenty years ago when I wrote this script, there were lots of performance artists of various kinds,” Cronenberg told critic Amy Taubin in an Artforum interview this week. “Once you have it in your head that something exists, that artists were compelled to make those performance works and that there was an audience for them, that frees you to invent what you’re going to invent.”
Cronenberg’s latest is set in a not-far-off future in which human bodies have changed so much that some people can barely feel pain. Because of this, knives are wielded in the alleys of Athens by couples seeking semi-sexual thrills, and quasi-secret happenings such as Saul and Caprice’s have developed a loyal following. Throughout, characters make one repeated pun: performing surgery has become a kind of performance art.
Outside the film, in the real world, artists have undergone medical procedures in an attempt to propose new forms for the human body. Along the way, they have questioned gender binaries and sexual norms.
The French artist ORLAN, for example, has received plastic surgery, memorably giving herself curved lumps on her forehead that she still has today. (Midway through Crimes of the Future, Caprice gets a similar kind of plastic surgery.) ORLAN has been clear about the fact that plastic surgery is typically used to make bodies beautiful—and that in modifying her own body, she wanted to become less conventionally attractive.
“Working with my body was a political gesture,” ORLAN told Artnet News in 2019. “It was an act for the woman I was/I am/I will be, and all women, to claim their freedom, which was denied to them.”
Cutting, puncturing, sewing, and wounding flesh have been utilized widely by artists from the late ’60s onward, from Vito Acconci to Zhang Huan. But it is feminist art of the ’70s that seems to exert the greatest influence on this film.
Even before Crimes of the Future premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, Caprice’s character had earned comparisons to the feminist artist Gina Pane, who ultimately stopped using her body in her work because her performances became so physically taxing.
For her 1974 performance Action Psyché, for example, Pane repeatedly cut her eyelids and stomach, leaving the incisions open so that they dripped blood. Her goal in doing so was to “reach an anesthetized society” — one with so much pain in it that there was no longer discomfort among viewers, similar to the world seen in Crimes of the Future.
Creators and Creations
At a certain point in Crimes of the Future, it becomes clear that there are subversives seeking to create new bodies, and it is unclear whether the government supports this or not, given that there appear to be moles on the inside. A federal investigator visits the National Organ Registry in one scene. He lifts up his shirt, points to a mass on his chest, and asks if it may be art in the vein of Duchamp, who likewise didn’t create many of his objects. Everyone in the room seems dumbfounded by the question.
What the scene implies is that bodies can be art, and that the artists behind them are not just natural forces but also people who come in contact with them. Indeed, Caprice and Saul’s artistic relationship is likely to recall that of another famed performance-art duo: Marina Abramović and Ulay.
Prior to working with Ulay, during the early ’70s, Abramović gained international recognition for her “Rhythm” series of performances in which she would enact violent scenarios using her own body. In Rhythm 10 (1973), she played a hand game using 20 knives, stabbing herself repeatedly in the process. In Rhythm 2 (1974), she took medication typically used for patients suffering from catatonia and began to experience violent seizures.
The series culminated in Rhythm 0 (1974), in which audience members were invited to use objects on Abramović’s body, including a scalpel and a pair of scissors. At one point, one viewer raised a loaded gun to Abramović.
Ulay and Abramović never undertook anything quite so shocking together, but their performances blended aspects of their romantic and artistic collaborations in queasy ways. Their famed 1977 performance Breathing in/breathing out involved blocking their nostrils and exhaling into each other’s mouths until they nearly pass out. In exchanging breaths, the two use each other’s bodies to transform one another, creating and using each other’s creations in a vicious cycle.
While never explicitly invoked within the film, Breathing in/breathing out, with its odd erotic qualities, seems to hang over the scenes in which Caprice and Saul take part in what they call “the new sex,” or relations conducted primarily through surgery rather than intercourse. In one scene, the two disrobe and allow themselves to be repeatedly punctured by a machine.
The Ear Man
Perhaps the most haunting scene in Crimes of the Future, when Saul visits a performance by an artist billed only as the Ear Man. It’s an apt name: this artist has sewn his eyes and lips shut, and adorned his arms, chest, legs, and head with extra sets of ears. He jerks his body around to an unsettling score while wearing only a small set of underwear.
The Ear Man’s performance appears to be a direct reference to a work by the Australian artist Stelarc called Ear on Arm. The work has involved placing a functional third ear onto his arm, and has taken Stelarc well over a decade to produce, partly because of the medical difficulties involved and partly because of the bureaucratic strictures that forbid surgeries of this sort in certain countries. He has stated that he aims for viewers to be able to hear what this ear does by tuning in online and on their phones.
Stelarc has said the performance is a reflection on bodies undergoing radical shifts in the digital age. “Certainly what becomes important now is not merely the body’s identity, but its connectivity — not its mobility or location, but its interface,” he has written. “In these projects and performances, a prosthesis is not seen as a sign of lack but rather as a symptom of excess.”
Although Cronenberg somewhat dodged Amy Taubin’s question when she asked about Stelarc, Crimes of the Future seems to eye the artist’s work with suspicion. Midway through the Ear Man’s performance, Saul is approached by a businesswoman who waves off the work as being bad conceptual art. He’s a better dancer than he is an artist, she suggests.