Mind Over Matter
By Dan Schindel

Infinity Pool
Brandon Cronenberg, Canada/Hungary/France, Neon

It’s not fair to compare an artist’s work to that of their parent, but Brandon Cronenberg invites it by hewing so closely to his father’s thematic and aesthetic preoccupations. It’s worth noting, though, how the younger Cronenberg inverts the elder’s use of body horror. In his career, David Cronenberg has often investigated the treacherous relationship between the body and the mind, how one might betray and in turn warp the other. In contrast, across the several features he’s made to date, Brandon Cronenberg tends to confine transformation to the imaginary realm. For him, the body is but a plaything of the mind. This has produced some striking visuals, but they fail to linger, couched somewhat safely in their unreality.

In Infinity Pool, Cronenberg’s newest feature, images such as phalluses sprouting out of nipples and vaginas, or a child’s face splitting open, are utilized only during hallucinations. There is non-figurative body horror in the film, in the form of brutal violence fashioned through impressively detailed practical effects work. Like in his previous feature, Possessor, these mental grotesqueries reflect the actions of the characters in frustratingly obvious ways. In that film, Andrea Riseborough’s body-controlling assassin is having an identity crisis, so naturally she dreams of her face melting off.

Infinity Pool similarly poses easy-to-grasp symbolism and fails to make full use of a legitimately fascinating conceit—a twisted spin on how the wealthy can buy their way out of any consequences for their actions. James (Alexander Skarsgård), a failed novelist plagued with writer’s block, seeks inspiration in a foreign vacation with his wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman). Their destination is a fictional, vaguely Balkan country of ultra-conservative, highly punitive laws, as well as enough ambient danger that the resort is within a heavily guarded compound. A jaunt outside the gates with the adventurous couple Gabi (Mia Goth) and Alban (Jalil Lespert) goes awry when James runs down and kills a local farmer with their car. Arrested in short order, he faces the death penalty, but with a way out: for a substantial payment, the authorities will grow a duplicate of him, one identical in body and memory, to be executed in his place. After the surreal experience of watching “himself” die, James is wooed by Gabi and Alban into a club of Western tourists who have been through the same ordeal. They take psychotropic drugs, have orgies, and commit wanton murder, secure in the knowledge that any punishment will be inflicted on their doubles. James is enthralled at first, but his mind gradually erodes with each new debauchery.

Infinity Pool is most involving in its early stretch, as it establishes this world and continually toys with an audience’s expectations of how it will work. The setup seems Kafkaesque, strongly echoing “In the Penal Colony” in its depiction of steely authoritarians enforcing brutal punishments with baroque cruelty. (Add to that a strong flavor of Western chauvinism toward Eastern Europe.) But the introduction of the doubles flips the characters from potential victims of the system to its beneficiaries, the kind of people who torment Kafka protagonists. It’s like a reverse Hostel, with ugly Americans and Europeans running roughshod over the impoverished inhabitants of a former Eastern Bloc country.

There are myriad ways one could explore this idea further, so it’s frustrating that the story only runs through a few variations. The doubles are so seldom used as a plot device that it often feels like there’s no need for this science fiction element. This dampens the rich horror of the concept, and the film mainly uses it to overly literalize James’s self-loathing and impostor syndrome. He hates himself, and so he takes glee in seeing his copy killed, and later even gets to brutalize one double himself. He feels emasculated by having to rely on his wife’s family money, and so he sees penises erupt from random orifices during an orgy. He feels guilt over killing the farmer, and so he hallucinates the man’s son coming to claim vengeance. Any initial shocks from the graphic sex and violence diminish as one ascertains how little there is going on beneath the surface, further evident in ways both small (the title is weakly tied to the actual events of the plot) and large (when the film peters out to a shrug in lieu of a proper ending).

The violence and close-ups of genitals are somewhat gratifying in their bracing frankness, but even this pleasure fades. Despite the film’s attempt at psychological horror, Cronenberg’s strengths lie mainly in shock, with little that truly haunts. The explicitness is cover for a dearth of true depravity. A midfilm orgy set piece elides any sensuality through its obfuscating strobe-like montage. The tourists’ violence against the locals is bog-standard home invasion stuff—in one scene they hold several people hostage but don’t do anything besides taunt them at gunpoint until a security guard forces a shootout, which feels like a workaround mistakenly left in from a first draft of the script. Lacking any specificity, it makes little sense that even the most wayward soul could be seduced by this brand of debauchery. Many of David Cronenberg’s works are seductive even amid their most upsetting grotesqueries; think of the twinning of sex and injury in Crash, or how Crimes of the Future makes a scalpel’s cut seem like a lover’s stroking finger. Despite Infinity Pool’s copious bodily fluids, it has no such juice.