Just an epiphany. Art triumphs once again.
As humanity and technology evolve symbiotically, our bodies seem to become increasingly obsolete, hollow vessels for our consciousness that never meet our perceived expectations of them, slowly tearing us apart as we fight to keep ourselves intact. The world melts and twists, a mess of death and decay, of spilt blood and cracked plaster. Art our greatest conduit to understanding ourselves and our own pain, the body a malleable canvas splattered with crimson paint, deconstructed and dissected to glean an ounce of insight into our collectively rotting psyche. But as the earth corrodes at the hands of our destructive tendencies so does it demand evolution and forward motion, to move beyond our regressive existences and push into a new stage of being. It necessitates fervent radicalism, to reject the establishment in pursuit of submitting to our bodily desire to become one once again with the dirt that birthed us and the polymerized surface we’ve built on top of it. Hypnotized by the viscera, entranced by the mutilation of ourselves and of our planet, we will fight against the truth until it is our last place to turn.
In an arid, dusty future where it feels as though all traces of familiar society have been carried away with the windswept sand, the decaying remnants of humanity exist in cold, brutalist spaces, an almost underground world where we siphon the last drops of a past industrialism, those few remaining pieces of a bustling capitalist world beached and rusting, eaten by the salty air and the slowly lapping acidic water. Through all stages of humanity art persists, here represented by performance artist Saul Tenser (another in a long line of phenomenally named Cronenberg protagonists, performed to melancholic perfection by Viggo Mortensen) and his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux, a vessel for the audience in her effortless gliding through this mesmeric world of surgical destruction and rapidly encroaching new world order). Assisted by pulsating organic technology they enact sensually performed surgeries on Tenser, a statement of his furious rejection of his body’s repeated attempts to grow new organs within him. But in a world where there is rarely any joy to be found amidst the dry landscape and harsh metal walls, self-mutilation as pleasure seems a natural progression, spilling blood the only way to feel anything in a landscape of colorless decay.
When Timlin (Kristen Stewart embodying a feverishly manic energy) finds herself enraptured by Tenser and Caprice’s performance she can barely stop to take a breath, extolling the work along with the revelatory notion that “surgery is the new sex.” Easy to attribute to being little more than a disturbingly witty Cronenbergian soundbite, but the phrase quickly worms its way into the fabric of the film, this insistent concept that our species is becoming something new and different, something we may not entirely understand yet. Eventually this notion saturates the entire film, this battle between new and old, the confusion that comes with being faced with what seems to be the death of humanity as we know it. It forms itself into a war of political espionage, the establishment forming a coalition dedicated to dismantling any bodily progression. An approach marked both by the National Organ Registry and New Vice, ensuring that any bodies finding ways to generate novel organs are traceable as well as attempting to oppress grassroots movements in search of ways to accept who we’re slowly becoming. As the film’s tangled mass of organizations, artists, scalpels and gore all coalesce into one, the new sex becomes less about a twisted futuristic means of pleasure and just as much an avenue for our evolution, our dissected organic matter pushing us beyond what we once understood to be our evolutionary path.
David Cronenberg’s latest piece of dystopian horror plays out like a greatest hits mixtape shoved in a blender made of flesh and bone, ground up and spit out to season a self-reflective journey deconstructing the intertwined relationship between art, politics, and our bodies. Shades of his best work shine through without ever feeling redundant or overbearing: the cold, discordant sexuality of Crash (1996), the violent, fleshy vortex of Videodrome (1983), the psychological corrosion of Dead Ringers (1988), the pulsating biotech of eXistenZ (1999), and the beguiling chaotic incoherence of Naked Lunch (1991). Threads here feel less like specifically critical narrative incidents and more like a collection of ideas spilling into a freeform pool to be pulled from, a film that you must surrender yourself to and allow it to draw you in whatever direction it may draw you based on your own lived experiences and ideologies.
The collision of the world’s fractured societies all through the lens of transgressive art and bodily mutilation is constantly revelatory, the graffiti-coated walls and organic machinery filmed with reverence by cinematographer Douglas Koch, and Howard Shore’s latest soundscape of shaking drums and humming synths is persistently captivating and mesmerizing. It’s the culmination of Cronenberg’s filmography: a film that dissects, deconstructs, and examines, the master himself peering into a buzzing scanline screen to explore how his career has defined him and how his art must transcend his own existence as he finds himself in an aging vessel. Politics necessitates art and art is defined by its own politics, particularly in a crumbling world caught between those who are actively destroying it and those who seek to evolve along with it and become a part of its renewal. Eventually, we must look inward and understand what is becoming of ourselves – perhaps we are not decaying, we are just becoming something new.