Being a body is a terror once you think about it for more than a minute. A terror, a miracle, a wonderland, according to John Mayer. Few are able to tap into our primal mysteries and blow them up like the great David Cronenberg. His new film Crimes of the Future, his first in nearly ten years, envisions a world in which evolution is outpacing the body and certain individuals begin to grow new organs. This presents a problem as the government requires the removal and classification of those organs to preserve and ratify its citizens’ humanity. This movie has everything: an inner beauty pageant, digs at performance art, Kristen Stewart enunciating, and, of course, Cronenberg’s signature body horror. It’s also his most trans-coded movie yet.
Watching horror movies has been my preferred way to self-soothe since I was young, despite the fact that the genre has a nasty habit of vilifying trans people, specifically trans women. Think Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs and Michael Cain’s Dr. Elliot/Bobbi in Brian DePalma’s Dressed to Kill. (Watch Disclosure on Netflix for more depressing examples and brilliant analysis.) In the early days of Hollywood filmmaking, the Hays Code was set which barred any sexual perversion (aka queerness) from being shown, and these ripples are still felt nearly 90 years after its inception. But for myself and other trans folks in my circle, I find joy in watching Norman Bates appear in the cellar doorway donning a dress and sporting a crazed grin, because, well, good for her! We long to see ourselves on screen and, like life, we view film through the lens of our lived experiences. For queer and trans people that are made othered, we identify with and can reclaim the misfits and the villains because they were made in our image in the first place. There’s someone in drag on my TV screen! They just said the word “transsexual!” When you’re used to crumbs and are suddenly served leftovers, as Gordon Ramsey says, finally some good f***ing food!
But now back to Cronenberg. Viggo Mortensen and Lea Seydoux play Saul and Caprice, a prolific and renowned performance artist duo. Saul’s body is rapidly creating new organs and Caprice surgically extracts them before a wrapt and horny audience. Pain is no longer present except when asleep, so art has evolved with the body to become physically spilling one’s guts instead of emotionally spilling them. Caprice penetrates Saul with futuristic surgical tools that look like meat and tendons made into machine. After Saul has a zipper implanted in his stomach in preparation for a secret “inner beauty pageant”, Caprice kneels down, unzips him and begins to kiss it.
All of this to me feels Very Trans. In Crimes of the Future, people sensually cut and slice each other on the street as an expression of sex and everyone is qualified to perform their own surgeries. Saul is a male muse in a body evolving out of his control. He says, “I don’t like what’s happening with my body, which is why I keep cutting it up.” This film also stands out from Cronenberg’s body of work as one which features his signature virus originating from within the body and not outside of it. One of the joys of being trans is completely making yourself in your image, creating your own humanity with both hands from the inside out. For some trans people, this includes injecting yourself with hormones, marking your body with little pricks of pain and pleasure, and going under the knife. Saul follows this gospel as he hacks his body as performance, agency, and sex. Saul also gets his stomach slit eaten out! And he LOVES it!
Being trans is having an honorary Masters degree in the body. We are acutely aware of the minutia in each pitfall, celebration, and horror shows. We’re learned in the subtle changes our body takes on as we embark in what is often our second puberty. Changes begin to our bodies that we love, that we hate, that we don’t understand. Your body becomes more your own as it becomes more alien. We choose to customize (or not) for ourselves and simply for our safety, enhance this curve, take this one away. In Cronenberg’s dystopian new world, surgery is the new sex. But each surgery must be catalogued and registered lest humanity as this world knows it starts to evolve out of existence. Saul cannot simply let his body evolve and go along for the ride, he must have his new organs removed or else he is no longer considered human in the eyes of the state. Trans people are no strangers to body modification, and unfortunately, of having to navigate dense bureaucracy in order to do so- making appointments, acquiring letters, paying fees, navigating loopholes, languishing away on interminable wait lists.
I thoroughly enjoyed Crimes of the Future, viewing it from a trans perspective or not. Watching it felt like how I imagine a poor peasant felt when they heard Mozart’s Requiem for the first time. It has the understated weight of Dead Ringers with the mythos of Videodrome. It’s a slow burn with gorgeous filmmaking and superb acting, even if some actors felt like they were in a different movie. It subtly ramps up to its conclusion, takes one final easy inhale, and then ends, leaving you waiting to exhale in your seat.
Cronenberg is the master of body horror, making you squirm and spiral as you contemplate the loss of your autonomy, but I do not think he is a nihilist. He ends Crimes of the Future with a new hope of being a body, that what Saul thought was his body betraying him evolving past his liking was actually an invitation to a new way of being, a new future. Sound familiar?