In 2020, right before the start of the pandemic, Brandon Cronenberg made me ill. Possessor, his excellent second directorial feature, bored its way into my brain as surely as the fictional device its corporate assassins used on their victims. Its protagonist un-mothered, shed her skin, and become something fully stripped of anything close to human.
Similar, if not parallel, trajectories awaited Alexander Skaarsgard’s character in Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool.
Infinity Pool (2023)
Director & Writer: Brandon Cronenberg
Notable Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Cleopatra Coleman, Mia Goth, Thomas Kretschmann, John Ralston, Jalil Respert
Plot: James (Skarsgård) and Em (Coleman) are a couple vacationing in the fictional island nation of Li Tolqa. All we are told of this nation is that it has beautiful beaches, it is impoverished, and due to violence and crime, resort guests must not ever travel outside of the fenced area. We discover Em comes from wealth, and James depends on her support as he continually fails to launch a career as a novelist, leaving him visibly emasculated. On their last day they run afoul of Gabi (Goth), and her husband Alban (Respert), who invite them to venture beyond the resort’s grounds. A local is accidentally killed by the group and James and Em uncover the secrets of Li Tolqa’s justice system, where honor killings are permitted as capital punishment, and where the very wealthy can be cloned and the clones can stand in for the execution. After the experience the horrified Em leaves the country and James is left to be seduced by Gabi and Alban, and their coterie of wealthy, orgiastic murder junkies, who can safely indulge their sick vices by buying their way out of execution.
This summary does not cover 1/4th of the shocking events of this movie, and I’m tasking myself with tying it all together in some pithy blog post. I’ll start by shouting out Alexander Skarsgård. He’s arguably one of the world’s most attractive men, and no one would question his right to be a trophy husband. But he successfully sold James as a dejected and emasculated sad sack, someone who could be seduced by a pack of deranged murder junkies to lift his flagging sense of self.
Then we have Mia Goth as an incredibly disturbing, shrill maenad (a funny bridge to Skarsgård’s other major vehicle, True Blood). She murders, she orgies, she emasculates and psychologically tortures James. She’s a loathsome monster. Goth did her job exactly right. For what purpose does she do these things? What kind of transformative force is she for James? There is one infamous and rather gross hint at mommy issues.
I’ll bring an analysis that’s entirely mine. There is something Grant Morrison-esque about the themes of this movie. In all of their major, classic graphic novels, including The Invisibles and The Filth, Morrison’s heroes undergo a series of mind-tripping trials full of confrontations with shame, disgust, and the parts of themselves they hate. These journeys are heavily influenced by the ideas of Wilhelm Reich. The heroes then shed – or inoculate themselves against – those things and emerge transformed into new and strong versions. I don’t know that James becomes “a better version of himself” or sheds any internal guilt or disgust. We’re left to guess at the end what he’s left with in his own head.
There’s also a fascinating political anthropology to Li Tolqa and what it stands for. An anthropologist requires a high degree of objectivity to study foreign customs that the West finds “barbaric.” Cronenberg very wisely removed race out of the equation in creating a fictional nation with a horrifying ritual justice system. What we’re then left with are questions about colonialism, and what tourist economies do to the surrounding people that become enmeshed and entrapped in those systems of power.
I’m also left wondering how this nation, with the secrets of cloning humans and an apparent disregard for human rights, remains impoverished. Shouldn’t they be world leaders in low-cost production of material goods?
Cronenberg seems to be the director that tests my limits as far as what I can stomach to watch – me, who chases cinematic horror with immense delight. Infinity Pool didn’t necessarily cross that limit. It only left me with that lingering mental unease that there’s a whole underworld of unappealing psychedelic malignancy before people expire in wet, human-directed violence.
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