Sundance 2023: Brandon Cronenberg’s INFINITY POOL is a Phantasmagorical Descent into Madness

Cronenberg shows us that every nightmare could be another man’s daydream.

What might be Brandon Cronenberg’s most divisive film yet, Infinity Pool, recently screened at Sundance. The film stars Alexander Skarsgård as author James Foster, who is at a high end resort on the fictional island of La Tolqa with his wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman). Em wears the pants and has been keeping the couple afloat through her husband’s last six years of writer’s block.

On an outing away from the resort with Gabi (Mia Goth), a fan James and his work, James accidentally hits a local and flees the scene of the accident. The next day James is taken in by local police and informed that he killed the man. According to the law of the island, the man’s son has the right to kill James. However, thanks to the local tourism initiative, James has the option of paying an exorbitant fee and having a clone, or “double,” created to die in his place.

James pays the price and witnesses his own death almost gleefully, much to the shock of his own wife. But that’s just the setup of Infinity Pool; it’s how Cronenberg then uses this jumping off point to not only build this nightmarish sci-fi world of toxic tourists, but to explore identity, similar to Possessor. The film then descends into Gabi’s world, which is reminiscent of Cronenberg’s father’s work in Crash in a candy-colored, phantasmagorical plunge into the madness of the vacationers. They roam the island in grotesque masks, playing chicken, with the life of a not-yet-created clone, free of consequences.

Infinity Pool, which is almost episodic in it three-act structure, may be one of Cronenberg’s strongest scripts yet. Basing the film in a fictional country liberates it, allowing for not only more sci-fi elements, but also a treatise on how Americans mistreat cultures abroad without offending another specific culture. (There’s a great scene where James is confused by a Chinese restaurant in the resort that is manned completely by island residents.) The film has a lot to say about how culture is treated, ingested, regurgitated, and exploited for tourism, and how that attracts a certain kind of person for a certain kind of experience.

Skarsgård isn’t one to shy away from a difficult role, and James Foster is no exception. He plays James as a spineless failure who resides comfortably under his wife’s thumb. He’s nearly emasculated when we meet him, and writer’s block is a pretty on-the-nose metaphor. He is then very graphically released by Gabi, which sees Goth playing a deranged seductress who leads the group of mad tourists while pushing her own recipe for enlightenment and rebirth. While it’s not a huge leap for Skarsgård to play the super ripped alpha, it’s these meeker, subdued roles where he explores the opposite side of that spectrum that really allows him to explore emotions and situations he otherwise wouldn’t.

Goth is just exquisite here, and obviously has a lot of fun with the role. Gabi is a lot more mean-spirited and calculating than the title role in Pearl. Goth’s take has her dominating Skarsgård and leading him down a path that he isn’t quite sure he should be on. It’s a turn that could be chalked up to another deranged woman, but Gabi is so much more here, and at times feels like a female Tyler Durden. There’s a depth and purpose to Gabi that is almost tinged with a religious zealotry. The sum of these pieces pairs nicely with Skarsgård’s more submissive James, as Gabi sees herself as his savior.

The visual language of Infinity Pool is Giallo-lit graphic orgies, horrific violence, and nightmarish psychedelia that not only signifies the hedonistic themes of our story, but speaks to the audience on a primal level. Death is not the end on La Tolqa, and that’s used by these vacationers (who we discover have all been sentenced to death at one time or another) as an initiation, an awakening. Cronenberg relishes in the task of visually taking us through this process of doubling, which sees the person’s mind being nearly shattered while it is copied. For James, it’s a hypnotic and garish kaleidoscope of violence and genitalia. Needless to say, Infinity Pool is not for the squeamish or easily offended.

Infinity Pool is unflinching, unrelenting, and just plain ugly—and that’s the point. Cronenberg has crafted his strongest film yet in this story of one writer losing inspiration only to discover it in witnessing his own death and terrorizing a small island of locals. Profoundly perverse and thought-provoking, Infinity Pool decimates boundaries and comfort zones. There are layers upon layers to be deciphered on future viewings, and answers to questions not only asked by the narrative and Cronenberg, but by your own conscience after taking a dip in Infinity Pool.

What would you do?

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