It is a bit of a cliché to fantasise about being a spectator at your own funeral, to hear all the nice things said about you and witness firsthand how bereaved the world is by your departure. What about being a spectator at your own execution? That is the premise of Infinity Pool, the latest movie by writer-director Brandon Cronenberg (David’s son). Brandon’s previous film, Possessor, was one of the best science fiction horrors in years, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Infinity Pool is not quite as tight, but it’s still another excellent work from a truly remarkable new director.
Infinity Pool opens with a failed novelist, James (Alexander Skarsgard), and his wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman) arriving in the fictional nation of Li Tolqa for a holiday. It is always a bit of a gamble, setting a story in a fictional nation, as almost always the fictional nation is nothing more than a stereotyped, threadbare depiction of a real country or culture. In this case it works, because Cronenberg takes care not to locate Li Tolqa anywhere recognisable. It could be Europe, it could be South America; the local script is unrecognisable, as is the culture. This anonymity reflects the utter indifference of the wealthy foreigners who travel to Li Tolqa to stay in its fortified resorts.
Whilst on holiday, James and Em meet another couple, Gabi (Mia Goth) and Alban (Jalil Lespert). Gabi tells James that she loved his first novel, which was an utter failure; he’s immediately attracted to her. On a picnic out to the countryside, they all drink too much, and driving back James hits and kills a local with his car. They leave the scene, because the Li Tolqan justice system is famously draconian. He’s arrested anyway, the next day, and learns that his punishment is to be personally executed by the firstborn son of the man he killed.
James is naturally horrified by this; but the softly-spoken Li Tolqan detective offers him an alternative. He can pay to be cloned, and his clone can die in his place; this way, the requirements of justice can be observed without scaring off the tourists. He will have to be present for the execution, as part of the punishment, but he himself will be spared.
This is one of the interesting elements of Infinity Pool. There is nothing else about the movie to suggest that it is set any time other than the present day, but Cronenberg confidently introduces this high-concept science fiction premise. It works well, setting up an atmosphere of irrationality that pervades the entire movie. In its depiction of a completely incomprehensible, utterly brutal legal system, it does actually feel a bit Kafkaesque. But Kafka typically depicted people who were ostensibly innocent. Infinity Pool takes a very different direction.
After witnessing his own execution, James is drawn into a society of other tourists, including Gabi and Alban, who have also committed capital crimes and seen themselves die. It turns out that watching your own death is something of a spiritual revelation, one which changes you forever, for the worse. These tourists go out on murderous rampages, terrorising the local society, and then pay to watch themselves die as part of the experience.
Infinity Pool owes a huge amount to British author J.G. Ballard, who was an expert in depicting contained, ultra-luxurious environments and the effects they have on their inhabitants. His novel High-Rise narrates the descent into barbarism of an upper-class apartment complex, and was adapted in 2015 by Ben Wheatley, while Super-Cannes (an extraordinary book) is set in a corporate estate in the south of France. One of Ballard’s defining ideas was that, for the mega-rich, psychopathy will no longer be an aberration but an adaptive condition – a means of restoring the joie de vivre to lives hollowed out by affluence. We all wonder what someone like Jeff Bezos does in his spare time to entertain himself – well, Ballard says, the natural solution for ennui is to engage in every taboo activity you can imagine.
As James is drawn into a vortex of violence and literal self-destruction, his attempts to escape the situation he has created for himself – personified by his erotic fixation on Gabi – become more and more desperate. Towards the end of the film, Infinity Pool does lose some of the momentum it develops with its excellent premise. Possessor functioned much better as a thriller, tightly plotted from beginning to end. Infinity Pool never feels aimless, but the conclusion does sometimes feel as if it is gesturing at something which has not been completely thought through. Nevertheless, there are brilliant moments all through the movie, and both Skarsgaard and Goth are excellent from start to finish.
It’s also extremely refreshing to see a depiction of the vulture-like role of wealthy Western pleasure-seekers which depicts the true horror of the situation – without the ironic, humorous distance which products such as The White Lotus maintain. The White Lotus is great, and obviously it’s a topic that can be approached from multiple angles – but Infinity Pool, like Possessor, has a particular nihilistic clarity to its worldview which appears to be Cronenberg’s trademark. There are a lot of superficially pessimistic films and shows, but it takes real talent to make something as bleak as Infinity Pool.
Infinity Pool opens tomorrow in cinemas.