Though still relatively early in his career, initial indications are that arterial spray and pulverized bones are to Brandon Cronenberg’s filmography what unnatural orifices are to his father’s. Cronenberg the junior’s last film, Possessor, was even released in an uncut version which restored assorted eye and teeth gougings in full to preserve the filmmaker’s unblinking approach to screen violence. It felt like a distraction then — a nihilistic stunt to pander to the midnight madness crowd — but it’s more purposeful and of a piece with the overall approach to conveying excess in his latest film, Infinity Pool. Equal parts dystopian sci-fi, treatise on the ultra-wealthy, and scurrilous black comedy, Cronenberg has devised a premise that takes unchecked privilege and the absence of legal guardrails and allows it to play out to its most Hobbesian end. While there’s no shortage of “eat the rich” takes in pop culture these days, you’d be hard pressed to find anything this pitiless or debauched over at The White Lotus.
Set at a heavily-fortified luxury resort on the fictional island nation of Li Tolqa, we’re introduced to occasional novelist James (Alexander Skarsgård) and his wealthy wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman) mid-vacation. James once wrote a not-terribly-successful book and has spent the ensuing years adrift: living off Em’s largesse (a visible strain on their marriage that they joke their way through) and desperate for inspiration. At the resort, they make quick friends with Alban (Jalil Lespert) and his actress wife Gabi (Mia Goth), the latter making a strong impression on James by gushing over his book. The film establishes a swingers and squares dynamic with Alban and Gabi, oozing sexual freedom and self-confidence, attempting to draw James and Em out of their shells, coaxing them into joining them for a picnic far outside the grounds of the resort (frowned upon due to the supposedly inhospitable locals). The two couples lounge in the sun and drink heavily; Gabi’s infatuation with James is impossible to ignore even before she sneaks up behind him while he’s urinating and brings him to completion in explicit detail (the film was screened in its NC-17 form with sequences like this all but assured to be trimmed from the R-rated version being released theatrically by Neon). As day turns to night and the foursome piles into their borrowed car, it falls to James — allegedly the most sober member of the group — to drive them home. Distracted and impaired, James fails to spot a local man crossing the road in the dark, plowing into him with the car and killing him. Scared off by Gabi and Alban from calling the police with warnings of kangaroo courts and jailhouse sexual assault, an ashen James and Em agree to leave the body where it lies and slink back to the safety of the resort, hopeful to put the whole evening behind them.
As the setup for a thriller, this is familiar terrain (almost identical to the opening of last year’s The Forgiven), but Cronenberg takes the premise to some decidedly unconventional places. Rousted at their hotel the next morning by the cops and dragged to a dungeon-like holding cell, James is grimly informed of the local law that demands he be executed for his crime (in a bit of “Lanthimosian” deadpan humor, we’re told the act must be committed by the eldest son of the deceased; in instances where there is no male child, the state will step in to dispense justice, but “fortunately” the dead man had a 13-year-old boy). However, due to a cozy relationship between the local government and the tourist industry (along with some sort of fantastical yet rapidly waived-away scientific process), they are able to clone James, memories and all, and allow his double to serve as scapegoat, albeit for a hefty fee. The introduction of clones sets certain thematic and plot expectations (i.e., the nature of the soul and the ethics of manufacturing a living being for the express purposes of slaughter), but these are things Cronenberg isn’t remotely concerned with. Rather, it’s merely an entrée to explore the all-encompassing sense of invulnerability felt by James (and, as we come to learn, other guests staying at the resort). Watching “himself” plead for mercy only to be repeatedly skewered by a giant knife wielded by a small boy, James feels liberated, in stark contrast to Em’s horror. For the right price, James and his creepy new friends can get away with literally anything, and the effect on them is intoxicating.
There are, no doubt, real-world parallels being exaggerated here, but Cronenberg seems more interested in the moral implications of absolute immunity; a system that not only allows the privileged to behave with impunity, but implicitly condones it in order to sustain its economy. If murder or assault were treated like a speeding ticket, how might that distort one’s internal compass or feed into any already raging sense of entitlement? As the characters go further down the rabbit hole of sex, drugs, and unabated criminality — every evening ending with little more than a pricy slap on the wrist (as well as the morbid catharsis of watching their doubles be bled-out for their nightly amusement) — the question becomes less will they make it home alive and more what kind of person will they even be when they get there?
With its scatological obsessions, extreme sex and violence, and its depiction of a “ruling class” degrading others to get their rocks off, the film recalls no less an act of cinematic provocation than Pasolini’s Salò (lest one think this to be a reach, we even get a sequence where a nude Skarsgård is dog-walked on a leash). But the film envelopes its extremeness in shimmering surfaces, drone shots, cool lighting gels, and trippy freak-out sequences (during these scenes, viewers are likely to find themselves wondering what they’re looking at and exactly how pornographic it might be). The film arouses and repulses in equal measure, leaving the viewer feeling as unclean and compromised as the characters. In this setting, the only unforgivable transgression is leaving the party early, with the film doing its own spin on “Hotel California.” It’s in this late stretch, after primarily treating her as a sexpot, that the film finally finds a suitable use for Goth. With her slightly alien features and up-for-anything enthusiasm, the actress makes for a memorable foil; her malevolence inextricable from her hedonistic impulses and taunting playfulness (a gun-packing Gabi astride the hood of a slowly moving convertible, a giant bucket of fried chicken by her side, feels designed to inspire a million memes). Diminished returns is always the risk with maximalism, and Infinity Pool isn’t immune from bloat or repetition (one hates to put a number on how many orgies in a film are too many, but this would seem to sail past it), but it recovers nicely in its closing moments, amplifying its self-loathing by counterintuitively burying it under banalities. Some remain defined by their transgressions, while the truly monstrous shed them like a summer tan.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 4.