David Cronenberg’s son, Brandon, has followed his famous father into a filmmaking career. Although they share cinematic obsessions, Brandon is no clone of his dad. His new film “Infinity Pool” (opening today in theaters) is further proof.
When I interviewed David Cronenberg years ago he provided one of my favorite comments ever: "Most Hollywood filmmaking these days is the cinema of comfort, I’m not looking to make comfortable cinema."
Brandon clearly shares creative DNA with his dad. They are both drawn to body horror. They both insist on pushing the envelope. And they both tackle filmmaking with a fierce, cerebral sense of precision. But they are distinctly different cinematic voices.
When Brandon Cronenberg’s “Infinity Pool” screened last week at the Sundance Film Festival, it came with all sorts of warnings about gore, violence, sexual content, and strobe effects. It delivers on all that but with an elegance of craft and meticulous care that might surprise you. It’s a wild, mind-bending rollercoaster of sensory overload but every single frame has been designed and placed with purpose.
From the opening shots that gracefully spins the world upside down, “Infinity Pool” is designed to throw you off kilter and make you uncomfortable. The film is set in an isolated and fictional foreign resort, where rich guests are told not to venture off the barbed wire compound.
The setting may make some viewers uncomfortable. The locals are depicted and assigned background roles, but I want to highlight an early shot that suggests what Cronenberg is after. A resort host stands in front of a band that is wearing weirdly disfigured masks, which seem out of place in the idyllic setting. The host then reminds guests that these “ugly masks” are on sale at the gift shop. It’s an early indication that the locals know exactly who they are dealing with. They are dealing with the rich, privileged class that F. Scott Fitzgerald described in “The Great Gatsby." “Careless people… they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made,” he wrote.
So the "ugly" masks simply reveal who the guests really are.
“Infinity Pool,” as with the recent “Triangle of Sadness” and “The Menu,” is an eat-the-rich satire that skewers the upper class. But unlike those films, Cronenberg’s film focuses almost exclusively on the rich vacationers and on James Foster (Alex Skarsgård). A man who wrote one failed book published by his wealthy father-in-law. He has been fighting writer’s block ever since and is on this vacation looking for inspiration. But that choice reveals his shallowness. How can an artist be inspired by placing himself in a bubble of comfort and safety.
Then James meets Gabi (Mia Goth), who professes to be a fan of his book. This appeals to James’ ego and he agrees to go with her and her husband on an excursion beyond the safety of the compound. But when James breaks the rules of the resort and gets involved in a tragic accident, he discovers that there’s a zero tolerance policy and all crimes are punishable by death. He is then told by the officer that “for a significant sum we will build a double to send in for your execution.” But James will have to watch his own execution.
This “punishment” raises a question: how would you behave if you could commit crimes without repercussions.
One of the things I love about Cronenberg’s films is that they are rooted in science fiction. Yet he wastes zero time explaining whatever futuristic science he has invented to set his plot in motion. He invents new technology as a means of exploring his chosen theme. In his debut film "Antiviral", it was viruses fans could buy from their favorite celebrities. In “Possessor,” it's a brain-implant technology that allows someone to act as a corporate assassin by taking over the mind and body of an unwilling surrogate. And in “Infinity Pool,” it’s the ability to make a perfect clone in a few hours. But all three deal with technology that allows Cronenberg to deal with question of identity.
"Infinity Pool" is many things – it’s sci-fi, horror, thriller, skewer the rich satire, and disturbing psychological study. But most of all it’s audacious, exhilarating filmmaking from a unique cinematic voice.
Interestingly, Brandon is exploring similar themes to his dad’s recent film “Crimes of the Future.” Both films look to artists who are meditating on their craft. Here it’s an artist without any passion, whereas in “Crimes of the Future” it is a mature artist assessing his art. And both films give us graphic gore but in ways we are not used to. In “Crimes of the Future” pain has been eliminated, surgery has become an art form and a new form of sex. In “Infinity Pool,” much of the most extreme violence we see is committed against the “clones.” In both cases we are asked to consider how this alters our traditional perspective on things that might normally shock us.
In the case of “Infinity Pool,” Cronenberg’s point is that rather than accept the policy of creating a clone to pay for one’s crime as a blessing, the characters all look at it as a get out of jail free card. Allowing themselves to indulge in their most depraved and hedonistic desires.
Skarsgård and Goth are both phenomenal. Skarsgård because he careens out of control on a downward spiral. Partially from others manipulating him but also because he allows himself to fall victim. Goth is stunning because within one role she shapeshifts constantly. From adoring fan to a terrifying monster and then retreats back into a bland kind of normalcy.
Everything in the film is top notch from cinematography to editing to sound design. So few filmmakers imbue their films with such a sense of cerebral craft. The film may show us characters and situations that feel like pure chaos but it is a chaos that Cronenberg is carefully controlling for us.
“Infinity Pool” takes its title from swimming pools that give the impression of merging into its surroundings. The film adds to that when Gabi explains that her husband was designing an infinity pool for another resort, it was a little “pervy with a glass bottom that you could look up into from the bar.”
Cronenberg gives us a film where all traditional boundaries feel blurred and people who no longer recognize any boundaries are prone to behave badly. And then he provides a glass bottom for us to voyeuristically watch his story as we consider what we might do if we were in James’ place. It’s by no means a comfortable film or one that offers any hope, and many may feel at the end like James, simply exhausted, drained, and depleted. I know this is not a film for everyone but I am thrilled that Cronenberg is making such bold, provocative, unnerving, and artistically intoxicating films. I am seeing it again to see what additional layers I can peel back.