Infinity Pool (Brandon Cronenberg, Canada/Croatia/Hungary)

Infinity Pool (Brandon Cronenberg, Canada/Croatia/Hungary)

By Saffron Maeve

There are few sights more imprinting than Alexander Skarsgård, nearly nude and with a silicone cap and cheek retractor, pouring himself feet-first into polychromatic sludge. He’s almost unrecognizable in his starkness, eyeballs positively juddering with fear as the room fills with liquid, all so he can elude capital punishment. As with fidelity and morals, the legalities within Brandon Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool are elastic.

As with the director’s previous films Antiviral (2012) and Possessor (2020), Infinity Pool stages a familiar sci-fi scenario, but rather more dully than do its predecessors. Author James Foster (Skarsgård) and his wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman) are visiting a coastal resort in the fictional country of Li Tolqa, where the locals are celebrating “Umbramaq,” or “The Summoning,” a festival of friendship and feasting. It’s an indulgent time for the Li Tolqans and their guests, though there’s a ritualized dread to the country’s ambiguous local culture, with the sinister live music scoring the breakfast buffet a fitting accompaniment to the macabre Ekki masks worn by hotel staff. 

Complemented by a gunmetal colour palette and generous Dutch angles (the Brandon C. special, it seems), the Indigenous mythos of rebirth and masquerade at the film’s centre sets into motion a chain of disconcerting events. Bored by their wealth and each other, James and Em meet Gabi (Mia Goth), a bubbly commercial actress, and her husband Alban (Jalil Lespert), a retired architect. Gabi turns out to be a superfan of James’ sole novel The Variable Sheath (which, he notes, “not a lot of people read”), and the two couples wind up dining together and proceed to escape the grounds of the resort. During the ensuing hours spent, grilling, sunbathing, and loafing around on the beach, Gabi gives James a dispassionate handjob, resulting in a vague cumshot splashing on gravel (in lieu of the original cut’s more daring full-frontal ejaculation). There’s a lingering disquietude to their adventures which doesn’t fully materialize until James, driving his drunken ensemble back to the resort, hits and kills a local man crossing the road. 

Gabi forcefully urges the group to return to the resort rather than go to the police of an “uncivilized, brutal, filthy country.” Clearly, she knows something. The next morning, local officials bring James and Em in for questioning, where they are informed of Li Tolqa’s penalty for murder: death at the hands of the victim’s eldest son, in order to preserve the family’s honour (a premise similar to John Michael McDonagh’s The Forgiven [2021], starring Cronenberg alumni Caleb Landry-Jones). The buried caveat—a detail known to Gabi—is that James can duck his fate for a fee. Em can afford it. 

Beneath his Twilight Zone set-up, Cronenberg configures a corporeal economy by which moneyed Westerners can chew off their previous convictions. “The Revised Process of Doubles Act,” a long-standing tourism initiative with a classically Cronenbergian title, allows international visitors to create a double—complete with all their memories and, crucially, guilt— who will carry out the physical toll of a death sentence for them, while the individual watches “himself” die from nearby bleachers. James cautiously consents, resulting in a sticky procedure—which, like all of Cronenberg’s sci-fi-isms to date, is not mechanically spelled out, but conveyed through editing—in an art-deco execution chamber, where proto-James watches his double bleed out from two dozen knife wounds to the abdomen. Em is horrified; James appears aroused. 

Herein lies the Blade Runner-esque catch: is the James we encounter post-procedure—who, according to Em, has “gone wrong around the eyes”—a double? And if he is loaded with the same bodily and cerebral composition as the original James, does it even matter? However, such meaty questions remain uninvestigated, to the film’s detriment. The semi-ironic eugenics of copy-pasting a Skarsgård, using what is effectively the rich man’s method of procreation, are also left to twist idly in the wind. 

James is intrigued by the prospect of safeguarded crime, and opts to stay at the resort. There, he is introduced by Gabi to a group of affectionately self-titled “zombies,” who vacation in Li Tolqa annually to partake in a bit of the old ultraviolence, pump out a few doubles, and watch them choke on their own blood. With James now in tow, they proceed to stir up enough sanctioned debauchery to quadruple their likenesses while racking up an impressive rap sheet.  

Infinity Pool does well to position James as an outsider, potentially drawn less to the spectacle of murder than harbouring a fetish for controlled, painless self-mutilation. A failed writer living off of his wife’s fortune, eyes widening only at the prospect of witnessing his own demise, he’s a memorably pathetic depiction of privileged failure. These ideas are rarely pushed beyond the realm of simple observation, however, and once the novelty of downcycling corpses wanes, so too do the film’s stakes and shock value. In both Antiviral and Possessor, the anxieties were viscerally richer, be they physiological complications, intravenous maladies, or the annoyance (and horror) of shared corporeality. Infinity Pool, by contrast, is impelled by detachment: the multiplicity and subsequent dispensability of the body, as a house for stray urges. The threat of replication is not as sinister as that of physical invasion or anatomical melding, which seem to be two of the driving forces of the director’s emergent style. (One would be remiss to not also mention Cronenberg Sr.’s fascination with penetration and indwelling, although such comparisons can only go so far for fans and detractors alike.)

And then there is the script’s half-baked critique of colonialism, which Cronenberg gently alludes to through his troupe of wealthy, white egoists mucking about Li Tolqa like a spacious playground. Beyond the nod to Western exploration as an exploitative practice—an inarguable truth already well-worn onscreen—Infinity Pool is, for the better part of its runtime, a binary project, invested in timid abstractions of goodness versus badness, conqueror versus quitter, and the righteous self versus its carnal truths. Cronenberg’s characters have historically forsaken moral culpability—such is the final beat of his two prior features, where the protags messily excise their guilt through cathartic violence. James, too, gives into something, though it’s unclear whether that thing takes the shape of rage, guilt, animality, progress, or regression. 

In his 2019 short Please Speak Continuously and Describe Your Experiences as They Come to You, the director surveyed a psychiatric patient (Deragh Campbell) whose nightmares are bleeding into her present reality. To convey her instability cinematographically, DP Karim Hussain (who has shot all of Brandon Cronenberg’s films) cuts together images of nude strangers, melty skin, inky blood in a gaping mouth, and a mass of virid, stroboscopic faces. In Possessor, a scorned man envisions a fluorescent orange bedroom where he mashes the face of his adversary and wears it like a mask, with quick cuts to intercourse and stabbing. Infinity Pool indulges the same filmic behaviours in a sequence where James, in a drug-fuelled state, hallucinates a prismatic orgy wherein beautiful women obscure their faces with Ekki masks and secrete a wormlike substance from their nipples. This gorno fantasy of orgasm mingling with disfigurement is transfixing and grotesque, but to nauseate is only half the work; if these images are divorced from the film’s cadence, from our oblique, unlikeable protagonist, then they do less to support than to confound. 

Cronenberg’s neon-licked intercuts may very well be a mechanism of lassoing an increasingly ungovernable plot (no filmmaker is exempt from their own coping mechanisms), but they certainly arouse suspicion as to what exactly the characters are chasing: virility, control, wealth, self-harm? It’s a shame, then, that Infinity Pool somersaults into a hermetic metaphor for emasculation—complete with a Skarsgård double as somebody’s leashed bitch—where it might have otherwise stood on its hind legs and let out an assured cry.

sford@cinema-scope.com Maeve Saffron