Some movies are strange in that they are much more pleasurable to think about and talk about than they are to actually watch. Brandon Cronenberg’s most recent exploit Infinity Pool not only fits this description, but also helps to define the boundaries of its usefulness by veering to its most extreme interpretation.
Why is that you might ask. Is it because the film itself is viscerally extreme and hence difficult to sit through? Well, yes and no. It is difficult to sit through, but not because of its graphic content. In fact, even its most violent scenes are delivered in an artful and respectful manner, so much so that you’d never feel you’re experiencing a work of a shock-jock like one Rob Zombie. The visceral difficulty of sitting through Infinity Pool is most directly connected to the way it was shot, e.g., Cronenberg’s directorial choices to shoot a lot of it handheld and in extreme closeups, which may become dizzying after a while when experienced in a theatrical environment. So, if I were to opine on the movie based on how it made me feel, I could honestly swing both ways and either dismiss it altogether because it made me seasick (which is how I ended up treating Michael Bay’s Ambulance), or I could add it to the body of positive aspects of the movie and pretend it was all done on purpose to amplify the idea of upsetting me… which only worked to a certain extent.
And that’s because the movie itself communicates with the viewer using multiple channels all at once, which is both overwhelming and perhaps counterproductive to the idea of selling its narrative as a logically cohesive satire, even if it underscores the overall unnerving nature of the experience. After all, I believe at the core of Cronenberg is trying to do here is the age-old idea of telling a story and then using this story as a conduit for thematic conversations, either directly or tangentially related to the subject matter of the narrative. And if you were to believe the filmmaker himself, Infinity Pool originated as a simple confluence of two ideas: one about two people’s holiday going terribly wrong (which is a horror scenario everyone can identify with, I presume), and the other about the idea of killing your own clone for whatever reason.
In a nutshell, this is more or less what Infinity Pool is about: a story about two people, an artistically struggling writer James (Alexander Skarsgård) and his exuberantly rich wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman), who find themselves in a pickle while on foreign holiday in a country Cronenberg invented and which functions as a Balkan hybrid with a decisively authoritarian feel. What happens is they meet a couple of strangers Gabi and Alban (Mia Goth and Jalil Lespert) with whom they venture outside of the resort, which is at the very least frowned upon or downright dangerous and illegal, depending on the time of day or who you’d ask, and end up having a car accident in which they kill a local man. One thing leads to another, and we find ourselves following them as they fall into a Kafka-esque phantasmagoria where the local police chief informs them that according to their laws, their crime is punishable by death. However, upon paying a hefty fine, they can allow themselves to be cloned and killed in their stead. Which is what happens. And the story goes from there to explore what will happen to our characters once we imagine that their money does indeed render them immune from the law.
Now, this idea alone is a perfectly captivating hook upon which to hang a fully functional satire on the moral swamp the lifestyle of super-rich could become once you realize that laws don’t apply to them in the way they do to you and me. Anyone who’s been around London in recent years will definitely have noticed that in many places in the city centre the traditional double-yellow lines on the streets have been slowly replaced by double-reds, which is presumably a knock-on effect of rich car owners leaving their behemoth Rolls-Royces and McLarens wherever they pleased because receiving a fixed penalty charge notice was worth as much to them as losing a penny would be to a normal pleb. I can only surmise the only way they could be inconvenienced enough to refrain from parking illegally was to threaten their supercars would be towed away because money was essentially worthless to them. Not being able to prance around the capital in their snazzy Lambos and roaring Ferraris, on the other hand, was.
Cronenberg’s movie, at least in part, attempts to explore this idea of fearlessness bought with money, or to a lesser extent, the notion of disrespecting the local customs, traditions and laws because you come from a more developed country or because you are simply much richer than the poor population of a country whose beaches you came to invade with your Louis Vuitton towels and Ralph Lauren swimming trunks. Our journey on James’ shoulder quickly transforms into a suffocating nightmare as he becomes sucked into the gears of a judicial system he does not understand and into the midst of ruthless games played by his newly acquired billionaire friends, all of which eventually morph into a seductive force that leaves James wanting to preserve these godly privileges and unlimited power he can exercise in this place.
And if Infinity Pool committed to exploring these notions fully while weaving its satirical tale, it would have easily stood as an interesting counterweight to Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness (or any Östlund film, for that matter), in that it would embellish this conversation using Cronenberg’s preferred language of body horror and gruesome relentlessness of its delivery that even his father would rarely commit to. But this is not the end of it all because the movie is not an easily definable allegory. In fact, it eventually informed me it was equally interested in mapping a different interpretation over the top of the one it already did. So, once you get acquainted with these outlandish ideas of having your clones murdered and what this idea buys you if money is no object to you, Cronenberg adopts a competing perspective; one which is perhaps a bit more interesting in the grand scheme of things.
As events unfold and James finds himself ensnared by Gabi’s potent influence, the movie will allow you to see James not only as a newcomer to the world of the super-rich, but also as an artist – an independent filmmaker perhaps? – trying to find his footing in a world of out-of-touch producers, detached critics and sociopathic fans, none of whom really care about the artist as a person nearly as much as they care about having fun at his expense. Once this filter is applied, Infinity Pool becomes a critique of Hollywood or even the entertainment industry as a concept where the artist is permanently and relentlessly objectified by those on his periphery who seem to hold sway over his career by virtue of their affluence. He is literally forced to observe his own death from a gallery, forced to piss on a copy of himself, or even fight a collar-wearing clone of himself to the death before being breast-fed by his “enablers”. It really doesn’t take much to connect the dots and view this entire movie as Cronenberg’s stinging critique of the world he not only came to inhabit as a result of pursuing a career in filmmaking, but also a life he grew up observing from the sidelines.
However, this is where the problem is because the movie tries to do both at the same time, while distracting you with imagery meant to discombobulate and unnerve you as well. The result of this experiment is an unfortunate cacophony that instead of amplifying the message of the movie, undermines its delivery and becomes frustrating in a way that was most likely unintended. Therefore, as much as the concept of watching these characters engage in unbridled brutality filtered through Cronenberg’s dizzying perspective and heightened by a language of nightmarish visions and tonal dread woven into the proceedings is remarkably interesting in theory, it quickly becomes taxing and intellectually frustrating because you are actively dissuaded from following the flow of this phantasmagoria by these two competing interpretations simultaneously begging for your attention.
This is why Infinity Pool is a movie that’s fine to talk about but almost completely unwatchable. Only after the credits roll and maybe when you’re safe at home, or even days after the event, you are allowed to slowly unpack everything Cronenberg packed into this densely layered narrative resplendent with imagery even his dad would blush at the sight of. But that’s a bit late, isn’t it? As a viewing experience, Infinity Pool comes across as muddy and overdriven. What is more, it actively denies you the opportunity to follow along and relish in the horror the filmmaker is brewing, which invariably invites superficial comparisons to the iconic work his dad turned in when he was at the peak of his game. It feels honestly like a young bodybuilder looking at posters of guys who spent decades working on their physiques and wanting to get there quickly. It’s papa Cronenberg on steroids. Or at least it looks like it when you are watching it.
When you slow down and think about what actually hides within the film’s narrative core, you will no longer see it as a hastily packed suitcase of notice-me-daddy ideas, but I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t have the patience to give this movie this much breathing room. In fact, it seems to be Brandon Cronenberg’s MO because his previous effort Possessor suffered from a similar affliction in that it hid its most interesting aspects so well that the reward of finding it simply did not stack up to the effort required to claw it out of Brandon’s supple abdomen.