For his 2012 debut feature Antiviral, a low-budget sci-fi take on celebrity-obsessed pop culture, director Brandon Cronenberg presented a world in which the public’s adulation for famous stars had created a lucrative pharmaceutical industry based on their DNA. In the film, members of the public pay to eat meat generated from samples of celebrities’ cells and catch diseases extracted from their blood.
An arch and funny satire of our slavish devotion to popular stars, the film also playfully acknowledges and pays liberal homage to the work of Brandon’s father, iconic Canadian auteur David Cronenberg. It boasts a similar preoccupation with bodily anxiety, fluids and disease, together with a stylish sleekness of production design, elegant shot compositions and mannered acting style that echoes his father’s best work.
Sign up for BFI London Film Festival emails
Get #LFF news, competitions and ticket release updates.
Antiviral presents a perversely convoluted and typically Cronenbergian paranoid narrative of genetic replication, plagiarism and exploitation as we follow the work of a rogue chemist Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), responsible for selling the diseases of idols to willing customers in his day job. But Syd secretly carries new, exclusive viruses in his own body, sourced from celebrities, which he then sells on to biological ‘pirates’, all the while attempting to crack complex copyright locks built into the diseases themselves by the enormous pharma corporation he works for.
This absurdly loaded framework of allegory and satire also allows Brandon the opportunity to play with ideas of legacy and expectation on an extratextual level. Anxieties and tensions around following in David’s footsteps, the possibility of mutation, and certainly of criticism, even of failure, evidence themselves in the film’s hyper-symbolic play with sci-fi and specifically Cronenbergian tropes.
Syd’s arc also plays with these concepts, insofar as the character functions as a kind of tongue-in-cheek stand-in for Brandon. Syd becomes increasingly powerless as the film progresses, even as he’d hoped for a kind of genetic mastery, or at any rate to profit from replication. Reviews of the film in 2012 inevitably drew comparisons with Cronenberg senior’s work, but the film had in a sense already performed its own critique with this in mind. It’s a sly work, and one fully deserving of discovery.
The director’s spectacular new film Possessor, meanwhile, which is screening in the Cult strand at this year’s BFI London Film Festival, continues this fascination with copies, replication and embodiment but on an even more brutal and apocalyptic scale.
Andrea Riseborough plays ruthless assassin Tasya Vos. In the near future and with the aid of a hi-tech device, Tasya is able to body-hack her way into the minds and bodies of individuals, people she then uses as avatars to carry out her grisly hits. It’s a thunderously violent and beautifully designed film, a provocative slice of grounded sci-fi from a director again evidently and unashamedly steeped in the cinematic worlds and stylings of his famous dad. But Possessor has a set of thematic preoccupations that is very much its own.
With the help of her boss Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh, a veteran of Existenz, perhaps Possessor’s own most obvious antecedent in David’s filmography), Tasya enters and exits the bodies of her avatars, carrying out killings with sadistic glee before quickly and efficiently killing her hosts by suicide and exiting their bodies.
There’s an overwhelming sense of significance in this futuristic work and its parallels with disjointed modes of conflict we know in our present reality, whether explicitly in the form of drone warfare, cyber crime and the like or in our reliance on virtual avatars of ourselves in the world of work and leisure.
Outside of the machine, Tasya appears deathly pale, skinny and eerily detached – echoing the look of Caleb Landry Jones in the earlier film – while early domestic scenes away from the tech show her trying and failing to connect with her husband and child, both blissfully unaware of her violent profession. It’s hinted that the new technology is also damaging Tasya’s psyche, making it increasingly difficult for her to disassociate from the embodiment and forcing her to lose her own selfhood. When we meet her Tasya is already evolving into a ruthless operative, jumping from host to host, able to fulfil her work only through the prism of others. The symbolism is heavy and delicious.
Tasya’s latest mission is to assassinate prominent industrialist John Parse (played with coldly maniacal glee by Sean Bean), a monstrously powerful patriarchal figure. In order to do this she must temporarily inhabit the body and mind of Parse’s future son-in-law Colin (Christopher Abbott), a rather ineffectual office drone and slave to John, who spends his days scanning secret surveillance footage for products to then market to people as consumers.
Once Colin’s body has been taken over, however, he proves more resistant than typical subjects, prompting a kind of psychotic schism for Tasya as she wrestles for control of the body and to prevent an escalation of violence beyond the task at hand.
The film’s hyper-stylised look and feel become expertly unhinged, aided by a fantastically deranged score from Jim Williams (Kill List, Raw) that utilises a full range of synths, distorted wind instruments, deafening drum pulses and warped vocals to create a fittingly edgy sonic landscape.
As the narrative progresses, and an increasingly wild bloodbath unfolds, we’re left to wonder exactly who the Brandon stand-in is this time, fighting his way through a maze of visual references, echoes and new perverse images conjured from the mind of a new Cronenberg. Is he the calculating killing machine Tasya, efficiently carrying out her task, or the newly empowered Colin, fighting his way out of dotage to become a dominant father figure, and out of bodily possession and into his own selfhood.
It’s in the film’s bleak and jaw-dropping conclusion that it finds its true narrative and symbolic power. Possessor’s full-on bursts of ultraviolence, perversely transgressive sex and psychological disturbance have lent the film an unnerving, unhinged quality. But the ending offers the clearest idea of where this cycle of reproduction and references might head next.
Long live the new, new flesh.