Cannes 2012: Antiviral Review | Brandon Cronenberg is Even More Cronenbergian than His Father
It's hard to say if Brandon Cronenberg's first film, showing at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard selection while his father's Cosmopolis is awaited in the main selection, could do anything more to ape the style and substance of Cronenberg Sr. Futuristic dystopia? Check. Tormented hero at odds with society? Yep. Body horror? By the gallon, my friend. While Brandon's debt to David is touching, and though his film is a well-made, reasonably entertaining thing, there is something a little unsettling about seeing so obvious a facsimile showing at the festival. Even if there weren't a family link between the two directors, any unbiased observer would have to report the wholesale lifting of style and tropes from David Cronenberg.
Cronenberg father and son differ in this one respect, however: Brandon makes David look understated. In Antiviral, a veritable sledgehammer attack on celebrity culture, seemingly every scene, every line of dialogue, seems designed to ram home its fairly obvious message: our age's obsession with celebrities is unhealthy. The problem with a message movie, of course, is that it makes for a tiresome narrative and vacuums all other interpretations from the picture. You could hope for a fuller, more completely constructed world in which the characters are not merely vehicled through their celeb-obsession.
Antiviral charts the spiralling decline of Syd March (excellently inhabited by Caleb Landry Jones), a tormented young scientist who works in a laboratory where clients pay to be injected with viruses belonging to celebrities, including hot star of the moment Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon). Things begin to go out of control when Syd injects himself, against laboratory protocol, with a virus belonging to Hannah from which she subsequently dies; he is eager to 'scoop' the virus before other competitors get their hands on it. He subsequently develops a terrible illness (involving a lot of fever and vomiting blood, of course) which hampers him as he tries to go about his plan.
Where the film succeeds is in its immediately "Cronenbergian" touches: the clean, hermetic décors, the monochrome palette into which a rush of colour sometimes erupts, the queasily abject focus on body parts and blood. The story is vividly presented and Brandon Cronenberg tells it in a natural way that gives it immediacy and realism. Caleb Landry Jones, looking sickly, thin and androgynous, does a sensational job of showing the void at the heart of his character's existence, and registers Syd's illnesses (both real and metaphorical, obviously) well. The problem comes from an over-egging of the conceptual pudding: the scene for instance when Syd visits a butcher's shop and the steaks in the window are presented with labels featuring celebrities' faces on them, and the butcher explains heavy-handedly that these are pieces of meat directly taken from the celebrities: that would be overtly satirical enough without Syd then saying, as he does, "I still don't know why this isn't considered cannibalism." Oh dear. The groan-inducing obviousness of the script takes you away from the story on more than one occasion, so insistent is it on shoe-horning in one further jab at celeb culture.
Nevertheless, there is a great deal of promise here, and this is only Cronenberg's first movie. A mesmerising final scene in which Syd sucks dark blood from a vagina-like incision he has made into an arm attached to a machine gives a good idea of what Brandon C. can do in the future.