WARNING: THIS REVIEW MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS
An analogous theme to Brandon Cronenberg’s filmography thus far, is the descent of his leads into total self-annihilation. Creating narratives that depict their gradual emotional and physical withdrawal as they immerse themselves into the dark depths of the human psyche. In Cronenberg’s imagined realities with their subtle sci-fi leanings; deplorable, outrageous moments are underpinned by guttural fear and rage, causing the forsaking of all social propriety to reveal the inescapable fact we are at the mercy of our basic carnal impulses.
In Infinity Pool it plays out in a fortified tourist resort, in a fictional country called Li Tolqa. Li Tolqa is portrayed as an Eastern European, militarised, roguish state, likely somewhere on the Black Sea (although the film was shot in Croatia). James Foster (Alexander Skarsgård) is a failed writer, six years after his poorly received first novel is cursorily persevering with a follow-up and is bizarrely seeking inspiration barricaded in this plush resort paid for and accompanied by his wealthy wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman). Opening scenes has the handsome couple seemingly bored by their comfy lifestyle but mostly by each other, yet the accompanying ominous soundscape of jolting thuds suggests an abrupt end to their tedium.
And sure enough, trouble comes calling in the shape of Gabi (Mia Goth) also a hotel guest who ambushes James, flirtatiously professing him to be a fan of his work. Goth excels throughout, fluctuating effortlessly from ditsy bright young-thing to sex-crazed nymph to maniacal bully, the very antithesis of reserved and demure Em. After a couples’ dinner with her husband Alban (Jalil Lespert), they invite Em and James to a boozy beach trip outside the compound where Gabi seizes an opportune moment to creep up behind James taking a drunken piss and proceeds to wank him off. The film’s NC17 version shows urine, erect penis, cum et al. The drive back takes a dramatic turn with a deadly hit and run, after initial advice by Gabi not to call Li Tolqa’s corrupt police. They nevertheless come knocking first thing, the following morning.
The prison system in Li Tolqa takes an eye-for-an-eye approach to law enforcement. The sci-fi element kicks in here, when James is presented with an opportunity to bail himself out without any repercussions. For a lump sum they give him the option to clone him and kill the clone in his place, but with a stipulation that he watches his clone be killed.
The cloning process draws parallels to the heavily cerebral, transformation scenes of Tasya Vos in Possessor (Cronenberg, 2020), when inserting herself into other people’s bodies. A similar blinding sensation of strobing kaleidoscopic collages of colours and patterns, creating an immersive disorientation to reflect the protagonist’s shifting mental state, in this case being replicated. Cronenberg’s sci-fi is less technological and futuristic but more organic with stylistic choices that are more realist and make-shift and complement the grey, faded, post-soviet setting.
The film chooses not to preoccupy itself with any sort of “is it James or the clone” plot quandary, but more concerned with James’ slow disintegration into the abyss. As the couple are forced to watch the clone’s execution; Em is horrified, James is secretly aroused. The spectacle appears to give him a sense of indestructibility, further lulled into a false sense of security when introduced to Gabi’s group of rich friends, deeming them as fellow twisted brethren. This is very much in the vein of horror Hostel (Eli Roth, 2005), portrayals of the very rich resorting to the most barbaric of thrills, in this case it’s committing the most heinous of crimes in a bid to alleviate their boredom and expunge their inner demons, with full knowledge they can clone their way-out.
Em swiftly takes off, whilst James stays behind to embark on a debaucherous rollercoaster ride of recklessness and pleasure-seeking (there is a long polysexual orgy scene enhanced by hallucinatory effects of a local root drug). The montages are eye-wateringly absorbing, tantalisingly erotic, baring loads of naked flesh and presented in very ritualistic fashion, signalling heavily to the occult. Not long till the hedonistic trip turns sour, once James becomes the target of the group’s sadistic games, finding himself being their punch bag and unable to escape until he is broken down into total submission.
Like in his previous films Cronenberg packs in a fair few ideas, which ordinarily would come off as over-stuffed or incohesive, but he presents it in such a stylishly low-key and off-kilter manner, exuding sensations of eeriness and discombobulation which gels everything together. The focus stays on James throughout with a sharp of focus on poking fun at his male archetype and proceeds to take him down completely.
Yet the film’s ending throws James a lifeline, it suggests that the whole experience was a process of catharsis, stripping away unwanted baggage and societal expectations, removing any morsel of self-worth connected to the life he had, and then rebuilding him anew. And now with his newfound self as it’s time to return to Em and to his privileged life, yet despite the drudgery endured the option to stay in Li Tolqa seems more inviting.
Infinity Pool is in cinemas on Friday, March 24th.