Brandon Cronenberg's twisted third feature intrigues and disturbs but can't find anywhere interesting to take its best ideas
The rich are having a hard time of it lately. Well, in fiction, at least. Take James (Alexander Skarsgård), failed novelist and kept husband to a wealthy heiress (Cleopatra Coleman), vacationing in the fictional state of Li Tolqa. For certain guests in the know, rampant hedonism – sex, drugs, or even murder – is part of the package… if you're willing to pay the price. In the near-future of Brandon Cronenberg's Infinity Pool, see, cloning is just another way for the wealthy to cheat the system; get slapped with the death penalty and simply pay to watch a copy die in your place.
So lies the moral dilemma at the heart of Cronenberg Jr.'s third feature, coming three years after the body swap horror of his disturbing Possessor: if any transgression could be waved away with the flash of a credit card, how far would you go? In concept, it's killer. In execution (and there are many), it's flawed. While Possessor clung to a pulp aesthetic that inflicted it with real B-movie gusto, the filmmaker brings a seriousness of style and tone that can stifle the sense of fun. For a good hour, though, Infinity Pool succeeds in creating ripples that are too interesting to ignore.
As the son of one of cinema's great disrupters, Cronenberg knows a thing or two about provocation: he delivers on all the bodily fluids, crushed heads, nightmarish orgies and wild hallucinations. There is at least one close-up of an erect penis. The film works best in such graphic depictions: clones being repeatedly stabbed, or having their throats slit, as their originals whoop and cheer from the sidelines. Such images are tangible and leave an uneasy feeling in the pit of the stomach – an eerie visual ouroboros on how we kill a part of ourselves when we choose to partake in the suffering of others.
Skarsgård serves his purpose as an empty vessel, drawn to the madness because – why else? – he hates himself. But it is scream queen of the moment and scenery-chewer of the highest order, Mia Goth, who steals the show with a truly unhinged performance as fellow vacationer Gabi – the demented siren who lures James to the other side with whispers of adoration, and whose seemingly endless repetition of his name, delivered through that almost parodic and baby-ish English accent (it is, in fact, her real voice), sticks with you longer than the pretty scenery.
The movie has the cool look – and associated dread – of much of Eastern European cinema, but to watch is to be let down by the lack of real smarts. Cronenberg's film trips up in where it chooses to take the material: that is, nowhere very interesting, the second half caught in a loop, unable to find a suitable destination for its best ideas. Inevitably, Infinity Pool stumbles into the same problem that so many other eat-the-rich satires tend to face: even with characters as unsympathetic as James, we quickly tire of watching them suffer. Maybe that's what separates the truly rich from the rest of us – a matter of empathy.
Infinity Pool was screened as part of the Berlin Film Festival 2023. It is released in UK cinemas on 24 March.Where to watch