Brandon Cronenberg shows no fear returning to images and themes popularized by his father David. Even the literary influences apparent in his work––Phillip K. Dick, Jorge Luis Borges, J. G. Ballard––are close. Yet his third feature, Infinity Pool, makes much clearer what his own voice looks like: a genuinely provocative fantasy of male masochism as a response to guilt. Set in a luxurious resort in the imaginary country of Li Tolqa, it follows novelist failson James Forster (Alexander Skarsgård) on a dizzying trip with his wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman). After having dinner with fellow tourists Gabi (Mia Goth, luxuriating as a femme fatale) and her husband Alban (Jalil Lespert), she gives him a hand job. Driving the quartet home, James kills a local farmer in a car accident. When he’s arrested the following day, Infinity Pool takes a strange leap: the culture of Li Tolqa allows guilty criminals to create clones to be executed in their place.

From this point it’s best to approach Infinity Pool with as few preconceptions as possible. Cronenberg’s aversions to consensus reality and kinky imagination help distinguish Infinity Pool from the many recent movies and TV shows about wealthy people’s abuse of power. It’s a fable about the way we construct our lives to avoid the consequences of guilt, but has little interest in moralism or simple allegory.

My discussion with Cronenberg is as follows.  

The Film Stage: The way you direct violence is instantly recognizable, with extreme close-ups of wounds but in a painterly quality. How did you arrive at that style? 

Brandon Cronenberg: It wasn’t something calculated. It just developed over the years through collaboration with my cinematographer Karim Hussain and Dan Martin, the makeup effects designer on the last two films. I think part of it is that, in my films, the position is fairly subjective. You’re following one character, and the violence is intended to be tactile and visceral. Fitting in tight close-ups adds to that sense of detail and texture.  

You’ve said that doing press for Antiviral was part of your inspiration for the doubling in Possessor. That doubling gets even more complex in Infinity Pool. Did you have any recent experiences that went into the development of that theme? 

I actually wrote Infinity Pool before making Possessor, in between my first two films. It was influenced by Possessor more in a formal way. We didn’t repeat any of the techniques. For the hallucination scenes we tried to form images in a practical, in-camera way. Our path of exploration started with a short film I made before Possessor.  

There are certain images in Infinity Pool, like the bulging pipes you see after James gets arrested, that look futuristic but could be part of our world. Were those something you created or found? 

They were things we found in Budapest, actually. The film was partially shot in Croatia and partially in Hungary. That kind of piping in parts of Hungary is very striking. You find it in certain industrial areas of Budapest. The police station and the doubling chamber were part of an old power station built during the communist era. It’s now in use only as a film set. It’s been used a number of times, but it’s incredibly striking, with a great sense of decay and a sculptural look.  

Brandon Cronenberg. Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for IMDb.

Did you consider shooting in other parts of the world? The choice of Eastern Europe makes it feel less topical than if you’d shot in Puerto Rico with servants speaking Spanish.  

The culture needed to be totally invented; I want to come up with a new culture with new technology, drug use, and a method of doubling. It would have been stranger to insert that into an existing one and would’ve felt like I was commenting on that culture. It’s also a question of where you’re from. In North America, people are more accustomed to take vacations around the Caribbean. From a European perspective, it’s common to go to the Adriatic sea in Croatia.  

The MPA rating board gave both Possessor and Infinity Pool an NC-17, but Infinity Pool is being released theatrically in an R-rated version. What did you have to cut to get down to that? 

Honestly, it was a couple of shots of a silicone penis. We did add some additional shots of semen dripping on rocks. There are a few trims here and there. It’s not hugely different, so I hope people go see the theatrical version. Canada’s rating system is more lenient in terms of sex. In the U.S. there’s great comfort with violence and unease about sex. I assume it comes from the religious, conservative culture.  

I can see a lot of J. G. Ballard, especially his late novels, in Infinity Pool. Are you still planning a TV series adapted from Ballard’s Super-Cannes

Very much so. It’s a brilliant book, but for Ballard in particular it translates very neatly into a series. It’s not as abstract as some of his other work.  

When you were a teenager, did you plan to become a filmmaker? Did having a director as a father influence your work in ways that might be more subtle than the fact that you’re both making body horror films? 

I didn’t think I was going to get into film ’til my 20s. I was writing, making visual art, and playing in bands. At a certain point I realized I couldn’t pursue all of them seriously. Film was interesting to me because it was an outlet for all of them. I’m too close to my father to be influenced by his films in the conventional sense. I don’t see them in a neutral way; I’m influenced because I’m related to him and he had such a large part in raising me.  

There’s no sense of the lives of ordinary people in Infinity Pool, such as what it would be like to be a maid or cook at the resort, but it’s about the effect of rich people abusing their power over them. Why did you decide to tell it through the eyes of James? 

In the case of something like The White Lotus, it makes sense to show both sides of class because you’re showing a real place and real people. Exploring that contrast. In Infinity Pool the world’s inherently absurd. It’s an invented country and culture that doesn’t cohere entirely. It works with a dream logic. You’d have to build its culture out further in a way that could be understandable and convincing. There would have to be a world-building element which would be hard to fit in. Maybe it would work in a series, but a film doesn’t have enough time and it’d require the world to feel less like a fever dream. 

Even the name Li Tolqa can’t be placed in a language.

It’s completely made-up. We did have a linguist come on to create the written and spoken language. Li Tolqan, as a language, is actually coherent, but it’s invented. The technology is intended to be absurd, more in the spirit of magic realism than sci-fi. There’s no predictive world-building about technology. Why does it exist only in this place? It’s intended to be more figurative, as a way of talking about identity.

As fantastical as the film is, was it inspired by any real experiences with tourism? 

To a certain extent. 20 years ago I went to a resort in the Dominican Republic. It was a very surreal experience because they bused us in during the middle of the night. It was a town enclosed by razor-wire fences and we weren’t allowed to leave. We spent the week at this incredibly tacky, almost Disney-like resort with a fake town where you could shop and eat at restaurants. At the end of the week they bus you back during the day and you can see the area immediately surrounding the resort is poverty-stricken, with people living in dilapidated shacks. That contrast stuck with me. It was quite horrific, and also surreal. Afterwards I realized I’d never visited the country in any real way––it was as though I’d been dropped into some other dimension within it.  

Alexander Skarsgård has a real sense of humor about himself and his body. Many actors would turn down the orgy scene. Did you have to search around for actors who were on the wavelength of the film? 

Very early on it was clear he was into its wavelength, but I completely agree with you. One of the brilliant things about Alex, apart from his talent as an actor, is that he can play as a conventional Hollywood leading man, but he’s far more interested in subverting those expectations. He’s willing to push himself in a completely fearless way. That contrast was perfect for the film. At the start he looks like he stepped out of a tourist brochure, but by the end he contorts himself into a strange, animalistic creature. That’s something unique.  

The Forgiven, which came out last year, has a similar premise about a wealthy white man killing someone with his car on vacation in Morocco. Given the delay between the time you wrote the script and made it, were you worried about the flood of films and TV series about the excesses and awfulness of rich people?  

Although we’re in a wave of films and series about the excess of the rich, it’s also a perennial theme in movies. The other thing is that you can’t pick and choose when you get to make a movie. After years of working towards it you get the financing and cast. So sometimes there are trends you fall into, where two movies with similar plots are released in the same year. Hopefully––because the film isn’t so explicitly about that––people won’t see it as a retread.  

Infinity Pool is now in theaters.

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