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Body Horror

Brandon Cronenberg’s Daddy Issues

Is “Infinity Pool” too Cronenbergian?

Courtesy of NEON
Alexander Skarsgård as James Foster in “Infinity Pool”

Buy a ticket to Infinity Pool and you’ll see: a convertible Cadillac careening full speed into an old man; Alexander Skarsgård stroked to completion; someone waterboarding their own clone with urine; a child maniacally stabbing a bound man in the guts; a human face being pummeled to pulp; a group of middle-aged hedonists arranged as S&M supplicants, suckling on an erect nipple that appears to be … flowering? A sustained thrum of blood and leather and billows of psychoactive smoke, Infinity Pool is the latest from Brandon Cronenberg—a filmmaker who, across his three feature films, can seem a little desperate to shock.

Cronenberg, who is 43, is the son of David Cronenberg: the august Canadian filmmaker whose skillful juggling of gore, goop, and high ideas is singularly associated with the “body horror” genre. Like Kafka and Proust, the elder Cronenberg’s sensibilities are distinct enough to have spawned their own adjective. Cronenbergian connotes both the design of the various mutated monstrosities that abound through his work and the abject feeling of reckoning with these monstrosities. Shinya Tsukamoto’s Japanese cult classic Tetsuo: The Iron Man is Cronenbergian. Julia Ducournau’s more recent Titane, in which a woman has sex with a car, was also described as such. And certainly Brandon Cronenberg’s films are, as a matter of artistic and biological inheritance, extremely Cronenbergian.

Infinity Pool casts Skarsgård as James Foster, a struggling author on holiday at a tony seaside resort in the scenic but poor fictional nation Latoka. James is a talentless hack, entirely dependent on the patience and patronage of his well-to-do wife, Em (Cleopatra Coleman). He is in desperate search of inspiration. He finds it in the form of a fun-loving couple, Gabi and Alban (Mia Goth and Jalil Lespert), who lure James and Em off the gated resort property for a day of drinking and joy-riding.

Barreling home from a secluded beach, James collides with a local farmer. The Latokan penalty for vehicular manslaughter—and, it seems, basically any felony—is death. But there’s a catch. For a hefty sum, James can be “doubled” (cloned, basically) and have his double offed instead, while he gazes on. He takes the deal. And as he watches his double’s murder, something shifts inside him. He’s soon lured into an ultraluxe underworld, where Gabi, Alban, and a group of other moneyed hedonists wreak havoc on the island, safe in the knowledge that they’ll be able to pay their way out of any serious trouble.

From its sci-fi-horror setup to its visions of human bodies in distress, to its geographical backdrop (the mix of ruddy infrastructure and Mediterranean coast recalls the elder Cronenberg’s recent Crimes of the Future, a masterful reckoning of his long-running body-horror obsession, shot largely in postindustrial Greece), Infinity Pool could be counted as another exercise in hand-me-down Cronenbergisms. But the way the film at times embraces, and at time resists, the anxiety of paternal influence offers a way to think about just how, exactly, we are meant to regard the work of such second-generation artists.

In 2022, the term “nepo-baby” cropped up on plenty of Word of the Year shortlists. New York magazine ran a whole issue dedicated to “the Nepo-Baby Boom,” with flow charts illustrating sticky webs of Hollywood heredity. The term suggests that such talents are not only relatives of famous people but direct beneficiaries of nepotism. As New York’s cover text put it: “She has her mother’s eyes. And agent.” (The issue is particularly endemic in Cronenberg’s native Canada, where celebrities from Dan Levy to Jason Reitman to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seem a little too eager to bank on name recognition.)

On the one hand, the “nepo-baby” discourse forms part of a more sustained analysis of class, in Hollywood and elsewhere. On the other, it risks totally diminishing the accomplishments of talented people who happen to have famous parents. Jamie Lee Curtis, the daughter of actors Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, balked. “There are many of us,” she declared on Instagram. “Dedicated to our craft. Proud of our lineage. Strong in our belief in our right to exist.” That she made nepo-babies sound like an oppressed minority probably didn’t help her case much. But she has a point. Having a famous name (or a parent willing to place a phone call on your behalf) has obvious perks. But it cannot explain, or explain away, an artist’s work.

One can, for example, enjoy the films of Jean Renoir without having to think about the fact that his father, Pierre-Auguste, was a rather famous painter. Details of biography may shade an appreciation of The River or La régle du jeu, but they do not eclipse that appreciation. There are considerations of acculturation, and of what is now typically called “privilege.” Jean Renoir is an artist who grew up around art, and that rarefied exposure no doubt shaped both his sensibilities and opportunities. Still, his oeuvre is distinct from, and even equal to, his father’s. But what if Jean Renoir were not a filmmaker but a painter? And more than that, an impressionist? And an impressionist who liked painting bathing ladies? Surely even the most appreciative gaze might narrow a bit, into a skeptical wince.

In the case of Brandon Cronenberg, the issue is not merely his pedigree; it’s that he insists upon it. When he cast Jennifer Jason Leigh as the head of a body-swapping murder-for-hire firm in Possesser (2020), her presence seemed to intentionally evoke his father’s eXisTenZ (1997), which takes up similar themes of identity’s malleability, and in which Leigh starred. A mention of a celebrity’s deformed genitals in his debut, Antiviral, can’t help but recall the “mutant” vaginas obsessing a set of identical twin gynaecologists in Dad’s Dead Ringers. In Infinity Pool, the long-suffering Em attributes her poor choice in men to “daddy issues.” Nudge, nudge.

These similarities could be chalked up as knowing winks, a case of the filmmaker acknowledging that his work exists in his father’s long shadow. But then why not work a little harder to step out from the shadow?

Infinity Pool is a little more seized by these anxieties than its predecessors; more eager to prove its own mettle. It is the least Cronenbergian of this Cronenberg’s films.

David Cronenberg’s style emerged when he moved away from the more rigid compositions and intellectual preoccupations of his early shorts. His heady ideas (and revolting images) emerge within a fairly conventional stylistic template, a contrast that lends them even more power. (That he has also seemed at times legitimately repulsed by matters of mutation, maternity, and media saturation creates even more frisson.)

Brandon, meanwhile, is developing into a more intrepid stylist. He balances airless, static compositions with increasingly adventurous camerawork. Infinity Pool opens with the camera inverting on its axis, as it leads the viewer across the landscape of the all-inclusive resort—cuing us into the fact that things are going to get a bit topsy-turvy. Hallucinatory interludes spice things up even more: strobing lights, naked bodies, overlaid camera exposures, and a droning bass hum that suggests a less joyful Ken Russell (or Rob Zombie). Human faces meld and morph, like something out of an old Aphex Twin music video. And the film, unlike Cronenberg’s first two features, even has a few jokes.

Brandon is more of a pure sensationalist than his father. Infinity Pool’s violence is abundant, and pretty boring. In a world where human bodies are lab-forged and replaced overnight, the damage visited upon those bodies feels immaterial. Abdomens are sliced open, throats are slit, and skulls are stoved in. But it’s about as compelling as watching a butcher work over slabs of beef. In David Cronenberg’s movies, bodies are massively significant. They’re canvases for artists, empty pages upon which gangsters ink their histories, and the fleshy indexes of the changing worlds in which they exist. For Brandon, they’re just meat.

His interests seem more metaphorical. At different turns, Infinity Pool plays like a White Lotus–styled satire of ugly tourists, a critique of hypermasculinity, and a gnostic parable. Jokes about men with olive complexions and Balkan accents donning Manchu costumes while operating a “Chinese” restaurant reflect the broad “multiculturalism” of certain packaged holidays. And the marauding revels of the nihilistic Western tourists are, to a point, exhilarating—in a whooping, ultraviolent, Clockwork Orange kind of way. But by the time we arrive at a blood-soaked Skarsgård sucking at Goth’s (also bloody) breast, it’s unclear what buttons Cronenberg is trying to push.

There is something needling about the film’s provocations. Instead of leaning into its familial affinities, Infinity Pool insists upon its own significance. Narrowly skirting an X-rating, it’s the sort of movie high schoolers gravitate toward for its shock value. It’s your classic cracked mirror held to society, reflecting various concerns and ideas in splintered fragments.

Late in the film, in the throes of nihilistic, hedonistic agony, Goth’s preening dominatrix taunts a shivering Skarsgård, daring him to commit further to violence and depravity. “Time for you to shed that disgusting larval mind,” she coos, “and find out what kind of creature you really are.” Infinity Pool sees its director undergoing a similar metamorphosis. It’s not yet clear what kind of creature he is. But he is wriggling out of his family’s primordial ooze. Ultimately, Brandon Cronenberg’s new movie may not be very good. But at least he’s failing on his own terms.