Eight years after his last feature film, Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg exploded back onto the film world’s radar with the Cannes premiere of Crimes of the Future in May. Starring Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux, and Kristen Stewart, the film treads familiar ground for the seventy-nine-year-old director by straddling the line between intellectual arthouse fare and the visceral gore of body horror. Judging by trailers, this entry in the Cronenberg canon has a particular interest in surgery and sex. For die-hard Cronenberg fans who have yet to see the film, one persistent source of curiosity is the film’s choice of title, because Crimes of the Future is the name of Cronenberg’s second feature film back in 1970.
Cronenberg made the first Crimes of the Future at a period in his life when the prospect of a career in film was less than certain. Filmmaking was not yet taught in Canada’s universities, where a young Cronenberg had first sought to train as a scientist, then as a writer, before finally settling into film. The original Crimes of the Future emerged out of the film-making co-operative scene rather than the glossy professionalism of industry, and is unashamedly avant-garde. Set in the then-future of 1997, Crimes of the Future depicts a world in which adult women have been killed off by a disease caused by cosmetics and is now infecting men. One of the symptoms is that a creamy, white fluid is produced by the nipples. The disease was discovered by an eccentric dermatologist called Antoine Rouge and is referred to in the film as Rouge’s Malady. The story is told from the perspective of Rouge’s disciple Adrian Tripod, played with eerie elegance by early Cronenberg collaborator Ronald Mlodzik.
As with his first film Stereo, Cronenberg shot Crimes without sound, so much of the story and worldbuilding is told through an added voiceover narration by Tripod. His jargon-filled circumlocution serves to discombobulate the viewer and functions as a satire of the academic world which the twenty-seven-year-old Cronenberg had been gradually detaching himself from.
Rouge disappeared before the events of the film, and so we follow a rudderless Tripod as he moves from institution to institution. He goes from Rouge’s own House of Skin to the Institute of Neo-Venereal Disease where he comes across a former researcher turned patient who acquired an STD from one of his charges; a ‘creative cancer’ that causes the growth of seemingly superfluous new organs. Tripod then transfers to the Oceanic Podiatry Group where he works on an ‘invocation of the genetic history of feet’, which onscreen comes across as awkward cruising in a bid to perform bizarre rituals of foot fetishism.
There’s a tension in Crimes between the academic surface and an underlying eroticism. Without any women in the film’s world, the men are lost despite clinging to the vestiges of prestige as suggested by the surrounding modernist architecture. Nails painted red connote femininity but also carry with them the memory of disease.
The gendered and sexualised apocalypse Cronenberg envisioned in 1970 is intriguing because it came amidst an emerging feminism south of Cronenberg’s native Canada. Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics and Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex were both published in the same year and acted as the one-two punch that broke radical feminism into American mainstream intellectual life (Millett was featured on the 31 August 1970 cover of Time magazine). In the UK, Germaine Greer had published The Female Eunuch. The movement proposed revolutionary solutions to the subjugation of women in society. This of course was preceded by feminist organising in the 1960s; Firestone was one of the founders of New York Radical Women in 1967.
Also, in New York around this time, Valerie Solanas was distributing copies of her SCUM Manifesto, which called for the elimination of men. Solanas is of course best-known for shooting Andy Warhol in 1968. Canadian filmmaker, Mary Harron (who would cast Cronenberg in her 2017 Margaret Atwood adaptation Alias Grace) directed a 1996 film about Solanas called I Shot Andy Warhol. According to Harron’s research for the film, carried out by Diane Tucker, ‘Valerie had never aligned herself with any feminist group: she always walked through life alone’. Nevertheless, Solanas’ writing chimed with the radical feminist milieu of the time and today is read as a feminist text despite its author never having been in meaningful contact with the movement.
Reading his reflections on Crimes of the Future in Cronenberg on Cronenberg, it becomes apparent that the filmmaker was influenced more by the work of William S. Burroughs than by a then-emergent radical feminism: ‘William Burroughs doesn’t just say that men and women are different species, he says they’re different species with different wills and purposes’. Cronenberg would later adapt the Burroughs novel Naked Lunch in 1991. Coincidentally, that work was originally published by Olympia Press in 1959. Founded by Maurice Girodias, Olympia Press is noteworthy for publishing literature considered untouchable in the mid-20th century, such as the works of Jean Genet, De Sade, and, of course, Valerie Solanas. Girodias published the SCUM Manifesto in 1968 to capitalise on Solanas’ notoriety after her attempt on Warhol’s life, although she had signed a contract with Girodias ten months before the shooting.
In her SCUM Manifesto, Solanas definitely finds common ground with Cronenberg by way of Burroughs, in that she sees men and women as fundamentally different. However, her argument for the eradication of males slides into a pathological realm. She writes: ‘it doesn’t follow that because the male, like disease, has always existed among us that he should continue to exist.’ The male being ‘an unresponsive lump,’ he becomes downright cancerous to Solanas, betraying a proto-Cronenbergian perspective in its ascription of sickness to humanity. Even though they remain separate by degrees, it is clear that both Solanas and Cronenberg are wading in the same transgressive swamp.
One of the difficulties readers have with SCUM Manifesto is that Solanas’ conception of gender can seem rather contradictory and ultimately unverifiable. She says that the supposed passivity of women used to justify misogyny is in fact imposed on them by men who are the truly passive ones: ‘he hates his passivity, so he projects it onto women, defines the male as active’. Men therefore attempt to assert their lack of passivity by ‘screwing.’ Solanas derides women who she sees as buying into the myth of female passivity as ‘Daddy’s Girls.’ Solanas’ views on men and women are, at their core, adversarial, and that this is a problem that needs to be solved. Cronenberg recognises the conflicts that arise between men, women, and their respective place in society, but in Crimes of the Future, he sees ‘duality and balance’ between the sexes as necessary to the world. Those men in the film with their red painted nails are attempting to, in Cronenberg’s words, ‘absorb the femaleness that is gone from the planet.’
This absorption leads to a horrifying conclusion in the film and justifies Solanas’ characterisation of men as a disease. Tripod’s journey through various institutions leads him to join a group of heterosexual paedophiles which he describes as ‘a group specifically abhorred though increasingly pervasive’. As part of this group Tripod kidnaps a ‘research import’ (a five-year-old girl) from his old employers: The Gynaecological Research Foundation and the corporation Metaphysical Import-Export. The researchers had chemically induced puberty in the girl, which makes her susceptible to Rouge’s Malady. Tripod and his accomplices aim to impregnate the girl.
The paedophiles’ plan to rape a five-year old is an attempt to reassert patriarchal dominance through a desperate resurrection of the nuclear family structure. Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex identified women as a sex class that was formed on the basis of her ability to give birth. For Firestone, the liberation of women could only be achieved through the destruction of the nuclear family and the elimination of sex-based distinctions. Cronenberg shows the nuclear family as necrotic in the world of Crimes of the Future, yet his portrayal of men attempting to ‘absorb’ a dead femininity supports his essentialist belief in the need for ‘balance’ between men and women. Crimes of the Future merely depicts a world in which that balance has been irrevocably destroyed by disease.
Cronenberg’s reactionary view of gender in 1970 unintentionally justifies Solanas’ vision of men. They are a ‘biological accident’ to her, a totally sexual creature who has developed and enforced an emotionally repressive ‘social code’ that is ‘overlaid with stilted manners; the suit on the chimp’. Tripod’s narration, stuffed as it is with superfluous academic-sounding jargon, is that suit on the chimp. The eroticism of the images in Crimes of the Future highlight how flimsy that pretence is, that man’s animalistic lust for control is omnipresent in the institutions he has constructed for himself like a fortress, in the self-deluding manner with which he speaks, and in the horrific crimes he commits.
It remains unclear how exactly the new Crimes of the Future will converse with the original. The 1970 film seems focused on the breakdown of society as an organism in which the individuals are mere cells. Societal breakdown continued to preoccupy Cronenberg in his subsequent films of the 1970s such as Shivers and Rabid. This is arguably in response to counterculture movements like radical feminism, which sought to reshape society through social revolution. In the neo-liberal present, the individual is given primacy to a previously untold degree. Meanwhile, certain quarters of contemporary feminism have seen a shift towards a more individualised emphasis on choice. The new Crimes of the Future, with its preoccupation on surgery, seeks to peer within the individual. As Léa Seydoux says in the trailer for this new film: ‘let us not be afraid to map the chaos inside. Let us create a map that will guide us into the heart of darkness.’