Brandon Cronenberg's ANTIVIRAL does daddy proud, restoring the Cronenberg family name to the body horror for which it's revered. Visually terrifying and thematically rewarding, it's also a debut with an identity all of its own concludes Timothy E. RAW, who also speaks to its creator.
The relentlessly clean interior of the Lucas Clinic is so brilliantly unblemished, it all but announces the dirty business going on behind the showroom façade. Sharply dressed in bad-guy black, employees unscrupulously expedite society's next devolutionary step toward celebrity as the reigning religion.
Symptomatic of the ailing culture that created such clinics, disease is what they're peddling. Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) is the company's foremost viral technician and one of a sizable sales force, infecting wealthy clients with cloned viruses of their favourite celebrities to bring them sickeningly closer to their idols.
For those of less solvent means desperate to get a fix, there's the not-so antiseptic alternative of the 'meat market', selling fresh cuts cultivated from celebrity cells.
I'll take my Justin Bieber rare and extra bloody please.
Even if the whiter-than-white walls and black suits don't clue you in that's something amiss, it's hard to buy into Syd's evangelical slick sell of celebrity perfectionism when his own own face is the bloodless cold marble of a death mask. Contrasted with the alabaster ideal of Lucas Clinic's most popular celebrity Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), Syd's sallow, freckled skin espouses a skin-deep vision of beauty that like the picture of Dorian Gray, is rotting underneath.
Having seized control of evolution without quite being conscious of the ethical and moral boundaries he's overstepped, Syd considers himself a biological artist, entitled to share his work with the widest possible audience. Infecting himself with the hottest new maladies and trafficking them out of the clinic in his own bloodstream, Syd's a human incubator, his test tube body an ever-spinning centrifuge of debilitating disease.
Despite being constantly ill and looking like the human equivalent of the advisory on cigarette packs, warning against the very thing he's selling, Syd has a steady stream of clients ready to shoot up. His hypodermically delivered aphrodisiacs turn bed-ridden fevers into bedroom fantasy; the delirium of debility, feigning a coital connection with a favourite celeb, bringing whole new meaning to the term "starfucker".
It's the first of many connections that can be made between Brandon Cronenberg's debut and the earlier work of his father, famed body horror auteur, David. As with Rabid's fast food franchising of plastic surgery, Antiviral's allegorical warning is one of vigilance against the controlling, evil alchemy of technology and corporate medicine.
The sexual rapture administered by Lucas Clinic might even send you home with a case of the shivers, comparable, though not quite as uncontrollable as the sexual urges which turn patients into mindless sex-crazed fiends in Cronenberg senior's film of the same name.
Antiviral's taste for perverse production design, orgiastic vital organ-oriented special effects and scenes of moist, exploratory, sensual feasting can't help but evoke the iconography of James Woods making love to Deborah Harry through the television screen in Videodrome.
Syd licking the blood off a punctured bio-tech iron lung designed to sustain the tissue of dead celebrities for recyclable reinfection is a direct callback to eXistentZ in which Jude Law tongues Jennifer Jason Leigh's "bio-port", a small, vaginal/anal-looking orifice at the base of the spine requiring lubrication for addicted gamers to plug themselves into virtual reality via a fleshy, phallic cable jack.
Antiviral's bodily correlation of pathology and pleasure will please any Cronenberg fan who might have despaired at the maestro gravitating towards less transgressive, prestige drama in the last decade, and while his father's work had a powerful predictive sense of technology years before its time, Brandon's debut is a vision of the frighteningly foreseeable future, in the not-too-distant now. Similarly, David's early films often pivoted on the fear of a localized pathology spreading, with Brandon's opening at a point of numb acceptance and total saturation in society.
Flitting between the shadows of the meat market and the bright lights of the clinic, Syd is something of a film noir anti-hero, his subterranean double agency of playing all sides reminiscent of Claude Rains in Casablanca, Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil and Jake Gittes in Chinatown. Like the best of film noir, fate also has it in for Syd, caught in a race against time to find a cure for the virus that killed Hannah Geist, now coursing through his veins.
The handling of the ticking body bomb is where the two Cronenbergs differ significantly. David's 'revolts from within' are often marked by a monomaniacal tendency to abandon plot and logic, pushing inwards towards an outgrowth of the psyche's worst nightmares. While not adverse to moments of spurious shock and Kafkaesque absurdity, Brandon's heavily medicated dreamscape sticks closer to the discernible outline of a thriller.
Dead behind the eyes and swinging between two worlds like a metronome clock, Syd moves in the shadows of a very different genre altogether. Sight and Sound's Anton Bitel correctly identifies the film as a "very modern take on the vampire myth" with needles replacing fangs and phallus. This suggestion is overt whenever the physicality of Caleb Landry Jones is seen in long shot. Hunched over and drawing himself into a flowing black coat, with hair severely slicked back to reveal a moon-white skull, the young actor is the spitting image of Nosferatu.
The visual yuckiness of Syd's bodily deterioration is so striking that his woozy mental capriciousness (which Jones nicely underplays), is in danger of going unappreciated. There's a subtly of undertone and overtone here. Syd is weak and vulnerable, yet sinister and rather frightening.
The new flesh unmistakably lives on in Brandon Cronenberg, whose delirious imagination stands well on par and apart from the old man. Inheriting the techno-flesh obsessional gene, his first film is a bold push beyond the limits of perversity in a direction that's uniquely and terrifyingly his own.
Writer-director Brandon Cronenberg talks to Timothy E. RAW about Antiviral at the 2012 London Film Festival. The video has been optimised to be viewed full screen at 720p, which can be selected in the settings pop-up in the control bar.
Antiviral starts a limited theatrical run today at the Prince Charles Cinema, London before being released on DVD February 11th. The technical aspects of the DVD will be reviewed nearer the release date.