A still from Infinity Pool by Brandon Cronenberg, an official selection of the Midnight section at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Infinity Pool Review – An Imperfect Experiment in Extreme Cinema

Infinity Pool arrives in Australian cinemas on May 11th 2023.

In Infinity Pool, Brandon Cronenberg’s third feature film, the idea of boundaries becomes both meaningful and meaningless. The film itself is depraved excess that speaks to what the super-rich could do if there were no meaningful consequences to their actions. Yet, in pushing that particular boundary Cronenberg is also satirising the other boundaries humans experience; whether those be class based, gender based, geographical, or understanding where one draws a line between self and other.

James Foster (Alexander Skarsgård) and his wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman) are holidaying at an exclusive and all-inclusive resort Pa Qlqa Pearl Princess on the fictional island nation of La Tolqua (think somewhere Eurasian where the locals are poor and the government officious). James and Em have been married for ten years. He is an author, but his last work was six years ago. The couple are vacationing so James can find some “inspiration” whereas Em seems to just need to not be wallowing in James’ sense of failure.

The couple is approached by fellow tourists Gabi (Mia Goth) and her husband Alban (Jalil Lespert). Gabi claims to be a fan of James’ book ‘The Variable Sheath’. Pleased with the attention of a beautiful woman James accepts a dinner invitation on behalf himself and Em.

The dinner conducted in a ‘Chinese Restaurant’ (Pa Qlqa offers the world inside its secure compound) is a genial affair with an undercurrent of unhappiness radiating from James and Em. Alban claims to be an architect, Gabi an actress in commercials in which her speciality is ‘failing naturally.’ When it comes to the question of how James survives having only published one book, Em answers “He married rich.” In fact, Em is the daughter of the publisher of James’ book who runs a multi-million-dollar media empire in Australia. As the night progresses the couples move to one of the resort’s nightclubs and the vibe shifts from genial to, at least between James and Gabi, flirtatious.

Against Em’s better judgement James decides they will accompany Gabi and Alban on an excursion outside the resort – something that is strictly forbidden due to the resentment the locals feel for tourists and the extreme level of crime on the island. Before James is fully aware of what is happening Gabi sexually dominates him with an unasked-for hand job. Meanwhile Em is listening to Alban’s veiled misogyny. The gathering isn’t going well but turns into something darker when on the way back to the resort James kills a local in an accident. Gabi and Alban insist that they not contact the police as James and Em have no idea how harsh the laws are in La Tolqua.

The next morning the couple realise that Gabi and Alban were not overstating La Tolqua’s laws. The punishment for accidentally killing someone is death by an immediate family member or the State. Detective Thresh (Thomas Kretschmann) explains that there is a loophole for international tourists that somehow keeps the country at diplomatic peace with foreign nations: for a large sum of money James can be “doubled” and his double will be executed in his place.

From this moment on we are completely at Cronenberg’s mercy. His fascination with body horror and violence is turned up to eleven. In Antiviral the notion of celebrity becoming so prevalent that people will actually pay to consume genetically grown “meat” from their idols or subject themselves to potentially life-threatening illnesses to get closer to the experience of being them. Following on from the theme of technology driven body horror, Possessor was a sci-fi thriller where people inhabited the bodies of other people for the sake of corporate espionage and murder. Infinity Pool takes the concept of self-hood one step further by introducing a clone that has the memories of the original person but is in every manner disposable.

“James” (whether he is the original James, or the clone seems to matter little) watches James get repeatedly stabbed to death by the young son of the man he accidentally killed. Watching the execution something happens to James, he finds himself enjoying the spectacle.

Em is disgusted and wants to leave the island immediately. James has somehow misplaced his passport and tells her to go without him. Sans Em, James is free to explore his new self with Gabi, Alban, and a series of rich tourists who have all been doubled at some point.

James’ mania is amplified by Gabi who has long ago abandoned any form of morality. She and her friends treat La Tolqua as a personal playground for their brand of vicious crime and orgiastic sex. James, who has long felt he was on a leash with Em finally lets go and adapts to the spree. Little does he know that the spree was adapted to him.

Mia Goth, not averse to challenging roles, is perhaps more outré as Gabi than she has been previously (and that includes swinging axes). She is chaos, she is cruelty, she is sex. She is the mother that will rebirth James and save him from emasculation and failure. Alexander Skarsgård, most recently seen as a form of self-destructive übermensch in The Northman cycles through drug induced violence and orgies to abject humiliation. Cronenberg wants James to be questioning his identity, but regrettably the script favours basic duality over subtlety. Man or dog. Leashed or unleashed.

Stylistically the film is unmistakably Cronenberg with Karim Hussain’s cinematography taking the viewer through a pulsating maze of violence and eroticism – both terrifying and both earning the NC-17 rating. The problem with excess is that it can often lead to banality. Does the orgy sequence need to be so long? At what point do we look at gore and just see gore divorced from any palpable sense of reality?

For audiences who are already on Cronenberg’s wavelength, Infinity Pool will no doubt be a masterwork. The blend of satire and horror will be some of the most forceful they’ve seen for a while – far surpassing films like Mark Mylod’s The Menu or Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness. In those films the wealthy were taken to task for their privilege. In Infinity Pool they are exaggerated into actual monsters who treat other people, especially the poor, as less than human despite the fact they don’t know if they are human themselves. Gabi has no qualms calling the locals “animals” and she doesn’t care how she reduces James to get the result she is after.

Infinity Pool is an imperfect experiment that loses parts of its thesis too often to visceral visual stimulation. However, Brandon Cronenberg is not a director known for restraint so viewers that are willing to submit themselves to a feverish and punishing work will find the spectacle enticing. For others who are less versed in extreme cinema the spectacle may range from nauseating to tiring and less titillating or profound than Cronenberg intended.

Director: Brandon Cronenberg

Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Mia Goth, Cleopatra Coleman

Writer: Brandon Cronenberg

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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