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Criminal Bodies: Life With Disabilities is the Crime of the Future

I’m not sure what I expected David Cronenberg’s newest film Crimes of the Future to be about, but it seemed interesting enough based on the few trailers I’d seen and the fact that I’d get to see Kristen Stewart for [checks text messages] “gay eye candy.”

That’s not to say that I didn’t know what I was getting myself into at all. I was aware of Cronenberg’s fixation on body horror and the erotic, having heard of The Fly as a Jeff Goldblum enjoyer and Crash from Charli XCX’s album of the same name, which was inspired by the 1996 film. It was, perhaps, my own folly to have not acquainted myself with any of Cronenberg’s films before seeing Crimes, but this is not an essay about how “classically Cronenberg” his latest film is. I don’t know if it is, and to be honest, I don’t particularly care, because it’s so much more than just a “Cronenberg film.”

Because after watching Crimes, it was clear I hadn’t expected it to be such a revealing film about the reality of living with disability — something I have lifelong personal experience with. I distinctly remember tapping out my Letterboxd review in the T station, shocked at just how easily the words came to me. I probably intended to say something snarky along the lines of “microplastic buffet” or “I’ll have what Kristen Stewart’s having,” but as the film progressed (and more and more moviegoers up and left the theater, not an uncommon reaction to Cronenberg’s films) I found myself mesmerized by what Cronenberg had to say about how institutions and society at large treat the disabled body.

At least to this disabled writer, Cronenberg leaves his viewers with a chilling conclusion: the “crime of the future” is living with disability — which isn’t too far a cry from our current reality. Even now, disabled folks are denied disability benefits when they hit a certain income threshold, limiting their access to working and supplementing the meager income given by the government. They are made to feel like an inconvenience for needing accommodations if they do work, or they are simply told they’re subhuman or inhuman because of their disabilities.

I’ve spilled a lot of ink in my time as a writer and film critic writing about disability representation in big-budget franchise films. Disability is everywhere in Hollywood, depicted with varying degrees of authenticity and respect. I’ve written extensively about how the Marvel Cinematic Universe depicts folks living with mental and terminal illness. My first-ever published work was about Doctor Strange and its radical subversion of the traditional, reparative accessibility narrative, which demands that any and all disabilities be “cured” — when the reality of chronic illness is that you are not “cured” in the traditional sense. So needless to say, the way disability is deployed and represented in film is on my mind every time I step into a theater.

Art by Lyvie Scott

Though the word “disability” is not uttered once in Crimes of the Future, that doesn’t mean it’s any less of a horror story about living in a disabled body. In the near-future and near-apocalyptic world of Crimes lives Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), a performance artist living with his artist-surgeon and partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux). Saul lives with “Accelerated Evolution Syndrome”: His body grows neo-organs at a rapid rate, which he and Caprice excise in their sexually-charged performances. The government of this world demands that any person with these extraneous organ growths be registered and monitored to ensure they don’t pass their syndrome along to the next generation, and therefore change the definition of what it means to be human. The government is already concerned about the state of humanity, the audience finds, because pain thresholds and infection rates are low to the point of nonexistence. This is where underground performance art comes into play: People take a perverse pleasure in watching these evolved bodies behave in near-human ways to pain and sensory experience.

In doing their performances, Saul and Caprice encounter an eco-anarchist group that wilfully alters their bodies in order to ingest and digest plastics, the toxic output of their industrial world — the same industrial world that forced the human body to evolve and adapt in the first place. Lang, a member of the group, confides in the pair about his deceased son, Brecken. Brecken was the first naturally-born individual who could ingest plastics, and Lang demands they use their upgraded autopsy/surgery machine on his dead son’s body to prove that human evolution is inevitable and cannot be avoided. However, at the performance, it’s revealed that proof of Brecken’s evolution was altered by bureaucrat Timlin (Kristen Stewart) to remain hidden from the public. In pain over the thwarting of their performance, Saul decides to eat one of the plastic candy bars Lang and his faction eat, and discovers that for the first time, he feels no pain in eating — he is, in short, naturally evolved like Brecken.

It’s hard to not see that this world of neo-organs and mutations could be analogous with, or serve as an allegory for, disability. Saul is ill and in physical pain in every scene, moaning or weakly coughing as a side effect of his mutated body. The fact that most of the human population in Crimes has evolved past physical pain and illness — to the point where getting “desktop surgery” or being cut into with a scalpel is akin to a sexual act — only emphasizes the similarities to our world: When you live with disability and/or immunocompromisation, it does seem like the rest of the world has evolved past pain.

Saul attempts to seek accessibility accommodations for his Advanced Acceleration Syndrome through LifeWare technology, which is specially developed to help anticipate users’ pain when eating and sleeping. However, his case is so severe that the technology can barely keep him functional. The first time the audience ever sees Saul, he is pain-stricken and desperately trying to fall asleep as he grows a new organ, all while lying in the bed supposedly designed to accommodate his physical pain. Cronenberg says without saying that Saul’s accelerated evolution is actually a disability that impedes his daily life activities.

The added fact that Saul eventually needs to eat a modified diet in order to manage his symptoms is another aspect of the film that strikes close to my experience living with disability. Throughout the film, Saul is in immense pain as he tries to eat alone in his room with his specialized BreakFaster chair, which supposedly helps the user swallow and digest with more ease — another sign that the whole world’s genetics and organ systems are changing. In comparison, Caprice is able to sit on the countertop and eat whatever she likes with no pain, no accommodation, by the open window and the sea. When Saul is finally able to eat without pain at the end of the film, his BreakFaster chair stops moving — and he cries at the end of his torment. Saul isn’t cured (for his body will always be different) but he has found a way to manage his pain and navigate a world that is not designed to help someone like him.

Art by Lyvie Scott

As someone who needs to be on a special gluten-free diet to prevent myself from being even sicker at all hours of the day, that’s where Crimes hits pretty damn close to home. Because Saul lives in a world where the government views his body as criminal and therefore in/subhuman, that last scene where he finds his accessibility needs is a reminder to audiences that he is no different than any other person. He is able to live a functional, pain-free life with accommodations, if only the world around him stopped punishing him for merely existing.

If anything, the ending of Crimes of the Future left me feeling that it’s such a crime that the future, a place we expect to be full of progress and understanding, still perceives those who need different accommodations for their differing bodies as not-human, deserving of restrictive governmental registration and classification, as if they were alien specimens.

Purity of human genetics, and the fear of the human body evolving in the “wrong way,” strikes deep at the way the centuries of eugenicist politics and ableist attitudes have marginalized disabled folks. It’s chilling to note that the folks who track down and keep account of mutations like Saul’s are members of the “New Vice Unit,” suggesting that being disabled is a vice in itself, a criminal offense. When Saul asks about the name, it is revealed it was chosen because it “sounds sexier than evolutionary derangement.” And yet… both are still horribly damning perceptions of the disabled body.

The future engages in invasive, predatory policing of bodies that cannot help existing the way they are. The core anxiety at the heart of Crimes of the Future is that people with different bodies, or different genetics, are not human. Not worthy of procreation, or family, or life. Not desirable. The disabled body is mutated and therefore Other. The government insists that human evolution is “going wrong,” and that they must preserve humanity — but that “humanity” is one predicated on genetic homogeneity. It refuses to see the disabled body as anything other than, well… Other. Timlin’s coworker Wippet (Don McKellar) explicitly says this to Saul and Caprice: “Our fear is that some of these neo-organs may establish themselves genetically, and then be passed down from parents to children, who would then no longer be, strictly speaking, human. At least in the classical sense.” Instead of recognizing that the world has been destroyed by toxic waste and industrial production, the government chooses to punish those with undesirable genetic makeups for the mere crime of existing. So the world of Crimes of the Future therein criminalizes the disabled body because of how it challenges our perception of humanity.

That fear of the Other is what pushes Brecken’s mother to murder him in Crimes’ first scene: She can no longer tolerate the fact that her son eats plastics, having bought into the assumption that those with mutations are inhuman. When Saul visits her in prison, she says it makes her sick knowing she gave birth to Brecken. The murder, which I would call an ableist hatecrime, is motivated by her belief that her son is Other because, unlike the eco-anarchist group who elected to alter their bodies, Brecken was naturally born with a digestive system made for consuming plastics. During Brecken’s autopsy, Caprice even says that Brecken’s mother killed him because she was terrified of the meaning that inherently lay in his body. In recognizing her son’s natural “Otherness,” she comes to realize that it’s not just her son that’s Other — she’s Other, too.

Art by Lyvie Scott

Brecken’s autopsy, the climax of the film, is framed by Caprice’s monologue about how Brecken’s differently-evolved body (which is also disabled because of the world he lives in) is a guide for navigating “the heart of darkness” that is the future. She invites the viewers of her in-universe performance — and of the film itself — to radically reimagine a world where disabled bodies are at the forefront, where evolutions are accepted as part of the natural flow of order in a world where industrial “progress” has forced us to reckon with how the body changes.

Disabled bodies force the able-bodied world to reevaluate humanity: Is someone with a wheelchair, or who faints because of their postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome like me, any less human than an able-bodied person? No — they just need different accommodations in order to move throughout the world. That means things like ramps, or sloped sidewalks to allow ease of access to the curb, or needing a chair at work, become part of the norm. And they should be the norm, because people living with disabilities are just that: People, trying to live their lives the same as anyone else.

Caprice has a line towards the end of the film that rings incredibly true for me. When Lang asks why they engage in performance art and remove the organs that Saul actually needs to digest plastics, Caprice replies: “His body wants to kill him. What we’re doing is making art out of anarchy. We are creating meaning out of emptiness.” So many people, including those who live with disabilities, feel a drive to create meaning with their life and their pain. For Saul, engaging in these artistic performances with Caprice is how he copes with the pain of physical existence. I do not believe the excising of his organs is self-hating, internalized ableism because it brings him great joy and pleasure to connect with Caprice in this radically different way. Saul has accepted his disabled body and uses the performances, and the intimacy they bring, as a form of healing.

Crimes of the Future feels, then, like a warning to the able-bodied, ableist world about criminalizing disability. Saul is undeniably human. We see him struggling to sleep and eat; we see the deep intimacy of his relationship with Caprice. Cronenberg uses their closeness to show that Saul is just as human as any other character, despite the difference of his genetics. Brecken is presented in a similarly sympathetic manner through his murder, aiding Crimes in saying that these different bodies are not inherently dangerous, and thus should not be criminalized. By showing Saul engage in romantic and erotic intimacy with Caprice, and by framing Brecken’s murder as the result of a crude, ableist world, Cronenberg fearlessly says that people whose bodies are different — and, by extension, people living with disabilities — are not inhuman at all. They are the victims of an ableist society who criminalizes their existence. And with such clear parallels to our present-day treatment of disabled folks, perhaps he is asking us to prevent these crimes from bleeding into the future.

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Cynthia Freeland
Cynthia Freeland
07. Aug. 2023

This is a brilliant and helpful review. I have been thinking of the movie in light of my mother's advancing Alzheimer's disease and her increasing problems with eating. It is another disability that is so common but that we all hide away or hide from out of dread. I kept thinking of her when I was watching Saul's problems in eating with his machine in the movie. Thank you.

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