Cronenberg, D. (2021). Crimes of the Future. Vertigo Films, Metropolitan Filmexport.
Glazer, J. (2013). Under the Skin. A24, StudioCanal UK, Ascot Elite Entertainment Group.
Ferreri, M. (1973). Le Grande Bouffe.
Anderson, P. T. (2017). Phantom Thread. Annapurna Pictures, Ghoulardi Film Company, Perfect World Pictures.
Jemisin, N. K. (2018). The broken earth trilogy: The fifth season, the obelisk gate, the stone sky. Orbit.
Guadagnino, L. (2022). Bones and All. Vision Distribution (Italy) Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures.
Ducournau, J. (2016). Raw. Wild Bunch (France) Focus World (international).
A half-sunken cruise ship lays lopsided just offshore from a remote beach as a young boy sitting by the water filters through sand and stone with a spoon. A woman, the boy’s mother, appears in the balcony of their home which overlooks the scene, and hollers below, “Brecken. I don’t want you eating anything you find in there, understand me? I don’t care what it is.” The look on her face is dire as she repeats it quietly to herself, “I don’t care what it is.” Inside the dimly lit home, whose walls are crumbling with decayed plaster, the boy, Brecken, brushes his teeth, and afterwards lowers to the ground to embrace the pink plastic bin that sits beneath the bathroom sink. He holds it in his arms as a child might hold a stuffed toy and he bites into it – again and again, chewing voraciously – as the material blends with the toothpaste in his mouth to produce a pallid fleshy tone of goop around his lips.
His mother appears in the bathroom’s doorway, looking on with a sorrowful face that tells a worn-out story. Brecken heads to bed, where his mother watches him toss and turn for a moment before she picks up a pillow. Straddling him, she plunges it down upon his sleeping head, suffocating him as he wakes, struggles, whimpers, and then dies. Moments later, on a call to someone, the mother tells them to relay to Lang that if he wants to pick up “the corpse of that creature he calls his son,” he should come to the address she gave. “It will be here and I won’t be.” Some vague mixture of remorse and relief washes over her face as she breaks down into tears. This is how director David Cronenberg introduces the audience to the world of his film Crimes of the Future (2021).1
“These days my guts are clogged with something else, as anxiety too is something not so easily digestible, but amidst that there’s also a hollow feeling of something missing.”
Urban myths proliferated every schoolyard of my youth: “You know if ye swallow the chewing gum it stays in your stomach for like 20 years.” And so swallowing gum became a sort of a dare, a game, or even a marker of a self-destructive coolness that many would soon enhance with underage smoking and underage drinking and of-age vandalism. But I always thought about the piles of chewing gum amassing in these lads’ stomachs: Where did it all go? What was it building towards? These days my guts are clogged with something else, as anxiety too is something not so easily digestible, but amidst that there’s also a hollow feeling of something missing. My tummy rumbles with something other than hunger.
Nowadays I’m often thinking about the potential within shared meals, communal eating, joining messily in the commons, washing up together the metaphorical dishes of this strange individualised world – but I live in a home with no shared living space, a place where the living room was changed into another bedroom so that the rent could be fractionally more affordable, albeit still too high and ever increasing. I eat meals by myself at a desk for the most part. It’s from this position that some kind of gutly intrigue overtook me, sparked as it was by Crimes of the Future and the ever-present sense that there are many things about this life that are hard to swallow.
Set in an undisclosed ever-nearer near-future, Crimes of the Future follows two performance artists, Saul and Caprice, whose work consists of live surgeries wherein Caprice removes newly formed organs from within Saul’s abdomen using motorised limbs. In the film, it’s revealed that many people have been growing new, previously undocumented organs inside themselves, suffering from what’s referred to as “Accelerated Evolution Syndrome.” In response to this, some enact extractive “Desktop Surgery” in public as a form of art making, whereas others opt to keep the organs inside themselves – something which the government is unhappy about, considering it implies the existence of people evolving beyond the confines of what is deemed “human.” The organ-removal performances are initially framed as subversive acts – buttered with a wordy self-importance that won’t be foreign to anyone who has dabbled in contemporary art spheres – but as the film unfolds, the viewer learns that it is in fact the process of keeping, altering, and nurturing these new organs which is the true act of subversion. Lang, the father of the murdered boy Brecken, is one of the leaders of this new fleshly underground movement, which has at its centre an illegal distribution network that produces and shares foil-wrapped bars of toxic plastic for new-organ owners to digest – albeit only after a surgical augmentation is performed on their insides to facilitate it. For those with Accelerated Evolution Syndrome, everyday moments of dining are full of pain and discomfort.
It is at one of Saul and Caprice’s performances that the viewer first sees Lang take a bite out of one of these silver-packaged blocks of purple, halfway between a granola bar and a clump of plasticine. Another man – later revealed to be an undercover officer from New Vice, the agency in charge of policing organ-growth – suspiciously picks it up from the table and bites from it, but upon swallowing a mouthful of the purple bar is thrown into a violent fit, vomiting violet goo and convulsing on the floor, dead.
After this performance, Lang approaches Saul with the idea of using his son Brecken’s body in a live autopsy performance, declaring it an unexplored performative form rich in potential meaning; he promises “some surprises” along the way. Saul, showing a patience and carefulness rarely imaginable in this film’s – and any – art world, does his due diligence to learn about the boy before pursuing Lang’s idea further.
"If the police found Brecken’s body and did an autopsy,” Saul asks,
“what do you think they’d find inside?”
Djuna gazes back at him and replies,
Brecken’s morbid death during Crimes of the Future’s opening scene does not serve solely as a brutal jolt to set the film’s tone, but rather, as is learned from Lang, the importance of Brecken lies in the fact that he is the first child born with a natural ability to digest plastic – it is this affliction, or blessing, that leads his mother, Djuna, to her decision to suffocate him. Investigating the situation himself, Saul tracks Djuna down to a prison – which she finds herself in due to her own admittance of guilt – where he questions her about Brecken’s eating habits and Lang’s resistance movement. “If the police found Brecken’s body and did an autopsy,” Saul asks, “what do you think they’d find inside?” Djuna gazes back at him and replies, “Outer space.”
I swallowed an astronaut when I was a child. There were these reusable sticker books that became a sudden trend when I was eight or nine, and one that I had dealt with space and the universe. You’d take these flat, flimsy plastic images of planets and space ships and lick the back of them to stick them temporarily onto scenes printed in the book. On one occasion, I got too careless with a hefty space-suit adorned figure and threw them too far back onto my tongue. With utter terror I realised they had drifted away into the airless abyss of my guts. For years I pictured them inside me, undigestible, drifting in space.
It is left ambiguous whether Djuna’s murder of Brecken at the start of Crimes of the Future was intended to free him from a life lived as a prop to a resistance movement or if how he was simply was something too unfathomable for her to comprehend. The delivery of the line “Outer space” is laced with an outward looking sense of discovery and potential, but beneath that it can be understood that she considered Brecken as something wrong, something non-human, something extraterrestrial. Considering the way she speaks of him, one might picture some otherworldly creature masked in human’s flesh, akin to Scarlett Johansson’s alien character in director Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013)2 – a human-seeming alien who seduces and devours unsuspecting men – but Brecken was simply a curious child, afflicted with an incomprehensible and new digestive system, and an appetite to match.
Visiting Lang, the viewer, alongside Caprice and Saul, learns how Lang wishes “to show the world that the future of humanity existed, and was good – was at peace and harmony with the techno world that we’ve created.” For Lang, his son Brecken, the first organic plastic digester, represents some kind of hope for a future within the toxic milieu of a world that’s been ruptured by expansive growth, ruthless extraction, and poisonous environmental violence. At the core of Crimes of the Future is the idea that the body and the human has some kind of mutant recourse against the powers that govern it. If the world is an abject, desolate place – as is often the case in sci-fi worlds – then the body can adapt to that, either positively or negatively, or ambiguously both, as is the case with Brecken. I’m reminded of the four strange old men that appear as characters in director Marco Ferreri’s film Le Grande Bouffe (1973) 3 , who, having reached the heights of their individual professions, decide to gather for a weekend to literally eat themselves to death. There is nothing sensible about their decision, but this simultaneously joyful and horrendous response to having reached the pinnacle of consumer culture feels apt – each character becoming more and more bloated and sluggish until eventually keeling over due to their own opulent feasting.
Towards the end of Crimes of the Future, the performance upon Brecken’s body goes ahead with an uncomfortable sense of ceremony that lands somewhere between a bad poetry recital and a well-organised public execution. Saul and Caprice reveal the poor boy’s insides through their performative surgery tools, an act which is meant to spark revolution but instead only shows the depths to which power will sink to maintain its position: Brecken’s remains are vandalised, his insides replaced, prior to the performance, by a cacophonous, wretched pile of other peoples’ organs. There is no monumental reveal of a new kind of person; the onlookers just gasp in disgust as Caprice tries to salvage the performance.
Difficulty and pain while eating foreground one’s existence as a new-organ haver in the world of Crimes of the Future. Their growing numbers are exemplified by the inventions of the corporations of its world: animatronic chairs to assist with digestion. These alien-looking pieces of furniture appear like ghastly dentists’ chairs. They move the body in ways that supposedly facilitate the “pain-free” eating of “normal” food – though this promise of relief is clearly untrue. It’s from this throne, or perhaps this kiddie’s high chair, where Crimes of the Future reaches its end. Days after the failed Brecken performance, Saul – whose character across the film flickers between well-meaning artist, pasty informer, rusty romantic, and would-be philosopher – sits writhing in pain on one of these BreakFast chairs that tugs and pushes at his limbs as he spoons a meal into his mouth.
"it is through the embracing of this toxicity, through literally eating it, that others are offered something resembling hope: a new evolutionary stage of personhood fit for a desperate, noxious place. Sound familiar?"
Hearing his groaning pain from another room, Caprice opens a small lockbox and takes from it a familiar foil-wrapped bar. Returning to Saul, she unwraps it and feeds the purple brick of plastic to him, his throat still gagging from the natural food that was moments ago being shuffled into his maw. Saul chews on the plastic as Caprice films him. A tear wells up amidst the wrinkles of his eyes and an unforeseen look of euphoria washes over him. The film’s final image is of Saul’s disbelieving and epiphanic joy; a new smile cracks around his mouth. While some in Crimes of the Future act upon their own bodies, taking agency over them through surgery, alteration, or mutilation as a response to the toxic culture they find themselves in, it is through the embracing of this toxicity, through literally eating it, that others are offered something resembling hope: a new evolutionary stage of personhood fit for a desperate, noxious place. Sound familiar?
Echoes of this venomous idea simmer elsewhere. Director and screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread (2017)4 tells the story of a reprehensible workaholic fashion designer, Reynolds, who, by the film’s end, embraces consensual poisoning at the hands of his partner, Alma, as a means of escaping his own self-exploitation and the abhorrent behavior it brings out in him. Here, albeit amidst a complex circumstance of mutual manipulation and desire, the eating of something toxic – a poisonous mushroom – brings about bouts of illness in Reynolds that weaken him, force rest, and somehow open the possibility of him being a caring person. “When he’s like this he’s very tender, open,” Alma confesses to the viewer, for whom Reynolds’s doctor is a stand-in. The chaos of Alma and Reynolds’s embittered and passionate love for one another is the clear focus of Phantom Thread, but their relationship is underlined by an eerie and discomforting sense of care. It’s a ghostly film. The first time Reynolds is poisoned by Alma he hallucinates his deceased mother watching over him in bed. “It’s comforting to think the dead are watching over the living,” he says near the beginning of the film. But the real deathly shadow that watches over Reynolds is his all-consuming work, a thing that slowly devours him and all those around him.
When thinking through the ideas of being devoured by culture, by power, by life, or even by love, my thoughts are always drawn back to author N. K. Jemisin’s immense Broken Earth Trilogy,5 which consists of the novels The Fifth Season (2015), The Obelisk Gate (2016), and The Stone Sky (2017).
Set in a far future, the novels tell the tale of a land called The Stillness which is ravaged by recurring, lengthy “fifth seasons” of catastrophic climate apocalypse, spurred on by immense tectonic aberrations. Amongst the people who dwell in The Stillness are Orogenes, people imbued with the inherited ability to draw magical power from beneath the earth: they affect temperatures, mitigate tectonic shifts, and, at higher skill levels, even petrify their adversaries.
This is called “orogeny,” named after the process of mountain-building that occurs along fault lines. The potentially violent and mammoth power of Orogenes is feared among the people of The Stillness. I’ll forego explaining the specifics of this kind of magic, how it is policed, and what its power means – these are each masterfully considered by Jemisin, and things you should experience by reading the books yourself – but what interests me about Orogeny in the context of this text, is that when an Orogene uses their magical power too intensely, it slowly turns their body parts to stone.
"While Crimes of the Future looks at impending collapse as something that might be fathomed and overcome through biological, political, and cultural means, Broken Earth Trilogy takes an already broken world and shows how community making, friendship, and action – and perhaps a bit of magic – might form the basis for survival in a toxic, volatile place."
Just as a deathly shade haunts the life of Reynolds in Phantom Thread, each high-powered Orogene in Broken Earth Trilogy is pursued by a Stone Eater. These curious entities – appearing in The Stillness as animated anthropomorphic statues with diamond teeth – lurk near Orogenes who are undergoing this cobbled process of bodily change, often nearby but out of sight or standing silently in the same room. Fulfilling dual roles as protectors and devourers of these Orogenes, as the name might imply, the Stone Eaters eat the Orogenes’ limbs that have turned to stone. Amidst what seems to be a gluttonous, callous cultural interest in cannibalism, be it from the true crime pushed by streamers, or from recent cinematic trends, Broken Earth Trilogy approaches the idea with a magical, complex, and intriguing grace. Bones and All (2022)6 from director Luca Guadagnino, adapted from the book of the same name by author Camille DeAngelis, haphazardly treats cannibalism as a glossy layer atop a coming of age romance story, but just like Julia Ducournau’s Raw (2017)7 before it, it depicts cannibalism as something bafflingly hereditary and cheesily paranormal rather than as a drastic response to a precarious and incoherent world – notes that Bones and All hints towards but never hits.
Across Broken Earth Trilogy, the Stone Eaters are each treated with a certain kind of suspicion, with their true nature not truly comprehensible to the people of The Stillness – they are, in fact, often relegated to the realm of myth by many who walk its decimated soil. Only by the end of Broken Earth Trilogy does the reader learn that it is through this devouring of an older self that a new self can be made: each Stone Eater is a former Orogene, and each of them is born anew through this act of being eaten. The bittersweet punchline of Broken Earth Trilogy occurs when the narrator of the books is revealed to have been the Stone Eater, Hoa, who has devoured the protagonist, Essun: in reading her story to the reader he is actually revealing her old life as an Orogene to her new consciousness as a Stone Eater.
While Crimes of the Future looks at impending collapse as something that might be fathomed and overcome through biological, political, and cultural means, Broken Earth Trilogy takes an already broken world and shows how community making, friendship, and action – and perhaps a bit of magic – might form the basis for survival in a toxic, volatile place. Crimes of the Future asks what might happen if people were to somehow evolve toward a state of living in biomutated harmony with the ravaged world they’ve created. It says, “Here are the poisoned ingredients. What kind of sandwich do you think we can make?” Broken Earth Trilogy says, “Don’t put that in your mouth. Sure, the poisoning has happened, but now what are we gonna do about it?” Through the cyclical self-becomings of its Stone Eaters and Orogenes, Broken Earth Trilogy suggests that one’s old ideas can be devoured to make room for new ways, not merely as new kinds of individuals, but in a process that takes into account people’s messy differences so that they might all yet eat from the same plate, around the same table.