What happens when the constraints of civilisation are loosened? It’s the sort of question Michael Haneke asks in a series of films, Funny Games and Time of the Wolf most obviously. In Infinity Pool Brandon Cronenberg attacks the same subject, except from a typically Cronenbergian direction, but comes to more or less the same grim and bloody conclusion as Haneke. Prepare, in other words, for a lack of laughs.
Prepare also for another spectacular Mia Goth performance, current queen of letting it all hang out when it comes to horror. But first let’s meet James (Alexander Skarsgård) and wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman), a couple staying in a dangerous developing country where the wealthy vacation in heavily guarded and fenced holiday resorts catering to every whim, albeit in a slightly antiseptic way.
It’s this lack of authenticity that drives James to agree to a plan hatched by a couple they meet. Though it’s strictly forbidden, Alban (Jalil Lespert) and wife Gabi (Mia Goth) want to go out past the barbed wire of the compound into the real world of the country beyond, and they know someone who will rent them a car off the books. James agrees to go too, spurred on by a relationship stand-off between himself and his wife – the wealthy Em married struggling-writer James possibly out of her own need for authenticity but the gilt is off that particular piece of gingerbread. And James also fancies the pants off Gabi, a fan of his writing, she says, as well as a woman whose pout suggests realms of all-too-authentic pleasure.
Off the foursome go, for a day of blissful escape – food, drink, swimming on an isolated beach, Gabi and James flirting with each other while Em crisply ignores what’s going on and Alban smiles and pours drinks, seemingly blithely unaware.
It’s only on the way home from this day out that Cronenberg’s film actually gets going, when the car James is driving hits a local and kills him. The police arrive. The tourists were out of the resort compound, says the cop (Thomas Kretschmann) so local laws apply. Which in eye-for-an-eye fashion in this backward country mean James’s life is forfeit. He will be killed by the dead man’s son as retribution.
But. There is a get-out, the cop tells him. Thanks to a high-level agreement between their countries, James can stump up some money and, using “doubling” technology, a perfect facsimile – right down to James’s memories – can be created. The double will take the fall instead.
Dead ringers, to borrow a phrase from Brandon’s dad, David. Infinity Pool takes a sharp left turn here, into territory both father and son have explored before. What looked like a fourway relationship drama has suddenly become a body-horror-inflected examination of the human being free from the consequences of their actions.
It turns out James is not alone. There is a whole group of foreigners who has been doubled in this way. It turns out that the question that’s been troubling James – what if the judicial process kills the original version of him, leaving the double to continue? doesn’t trouble them at all. As far as they’re concerned, the tech is so good it doesn’t matter. There has been tripling, quadrupling, and who knows how many versions can be struck from the original.
The bulk of the movie is yet to come, as hallucinogens are taken, kaleidoscopic orgies of sex erupt and spectacularly unpleasant behaviour is displayed. People suddenly free of the inhibiting effect of death drop a lifetime of good behaviour and rule-following. All behavioural moorings suddenly gone, James joins his new group of friends as together they descend into an abyss of amorality and increasingly animal behaviour.
It is all very Hanekian, if that’s a word. Cronenberg is less pitiless but also less subtle – as a satire on entitlement Infinity Pool is heavy handed. Cronenberg also isn’t over-concerned with the transition from intense relationship drama to sci-fi theorising. As with the doubling procedure, it just happens.
Cronenberg says he came up with the idea for the movie while on holiday in a secluded resort where people from the developed world enjoy the benefits of a developing country without engaging with it. It’s a good idea, one he abandones halfway through in favour of something quite different.
To compensate there are some fabulous montage sequences and there are big dollops of Cronenbergian black humour to offset the additional problem that none of his characters are particularly well drawn. Goth, meanwhile, swinging in like a representative of the thespian branch of the special forces, sets out on a one-woman rescue mission, pushing into unhinged territory with a performance of endlessly rewatchable ferocity. Whatever Cronenberg paid her, she was worth more. She saves his movie.
Infinity Pool – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2023