Film of the week: Antiviral

Chilly, macabre and transgressive, Brandon Cronenberg’s dystopian celebrity satire thoroughly earns the epithet Cronenbergian.

Anton Bitel

from our February 2013 issue

Poster boy: Syd (Caleb Landry Jones) gets an intimate perspective on the sickly side of celebrity.

Poster boy: Syd (Caleb Landry Jones) gets an intimate perspective on the sickly side of celebrity.

“She’s perfect somehow,” says Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), selling a dream to his rapt customer – and like the best salesmen, Syd believes his own pitch, even if that “somehow” allows for certain flaws. With his designer suit and scarf, slicked-back hair and consummately delivered patter, Syd seems to embody the very perfection that he is peddling – were it not for the freckles that cover his alabaster skin, emblems of an individual’s wear and tear. Antiviral is itself for the most part a brightly lit film of sterile sheens, with all the idealised allure of an expensive commercial – and yet there is also the constant reminder that all these shimmering, seductive surfaces conceal defects and disease.

The film opens with a brilliant whiteness filling the screen, only for the camera to pull back and reveal Syd sitting in front of a white billboard, a thermometer in his mouth. The billboard is advertising the Lucas Clinic, Syd’s place of work, which, for all its promise of a glossy experience “for the true connoisseur” (accompanied by an enlarged picture of a celebrity’s immaculate face), deals only in the illness and vulnerability for which Syd is here presented as literal poster boy, eager to conceal his inner sickness with a suave, professional exterior.

The Clinic clones and copy-protects viruses harvested from celebrities with whom it has exclusive contracts, and then injects those viruses into paying clients who desire to come that much closer to the objects of their obsession – while, lower down the social scale, the less respectable, barely legal ‘meat market’ sells steaks and other cuts of flesh that have been cultivated from celebrities’ cells. These are perverse forms of communion through shared malady or cannibalised consumption, where the real pathology being allegorised and satirised is celebrity culture itself, so that Antiviral, though set in a darkly surreal future, ends up dissecting the ills of the present.

Syd takes his work home with him, smuggling out the Clinic’s latest viruses in his own bloodstream and removing their copy-protection on an illegal console in his apartment so he can sell them on to the black market. Syd’s status as double-dealing agent, fluidly passing between different worlds – the Clinic, the meat market, the hermetic life of a celebrity – is the hinge upon which the film’s convoluted thriller plot pivots, as Syd must race to find a cure for the deadly synthetic virus that he has inadvertently admitted into his body.

Of course, Syd’s desperate investigation also exposes a self-perpetuating system in which celebrities and their adoring fans alike are cynically (and sickly) exploited by commercialised medical operations that have little interest in their clients’ genuine wellbeing. Syd’s own part in this system, as at once puppet, middleman, engineer and addict, reflects the duplicitous part we all play in a culture that we both feed and devour every time our eyes are drawn to the image of a celebrity’s face.

“Maybe you feel what I feel,” Dr Abendroth (Malcolm McDowell) tells Syd, referring to the quasi-religious charge he derives from wearing a skin graft taken from his celebrity patient, Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), “or maybe you’re really just another fan.” Abendroth is right to discern that, far from being a mere courier of Hannah’s disease, Syd has a very personal stake in the pathologies he traffics, yet the doctor deludes himself in supposing that the skin-deep bond he has himself forged with Hannah is really so different from others’ worshipful yearning. Abendroth wants only what all fans want: a sense of intimate, exclusive connection with a chosen icon.

Similarly the dream that Syd sells so slickly in the Clinic’s consultation rooms will turn out also to be his own private fantasy, shown on screen in vivid dream sequences before being realised in ever more macabre variations. Here, bodily penetration is conducted and bodily fluids exchanged through the medium of syringes in a controlled, clinical setting, and yet the ecstatic merging of self with other remains everyone’s elusive object – and so theology is imperfectly reduced to science, and the erotic is made fleshily monstrous.

Indeed, as blood is let, infected and consumed, Antiviral establishes itself as a very modern take on the vampire myth, with hypodermics substituting for fangs as well as phallus. The film’s striking colour scheme – all those harsh white surfaces, soon, inevitably, to be corrupted by the contrasting splatter of blood and bodily tissue – is suggestive of the pale skins and sanguineous issues that dominate the vampire genre, while its ending is rather unequivocal in the way it casts Syd as a bloodsucker, seeking to assimilate to himself something of Hannah’s Geist (her surname is the German word for ‘spirit’ or ‘ghost’) from the grotesquely preserved remains of her otherwise dead and entombed body.

Yet while Antiviral is certainly a welcome addition to the recent revival in vampire films, its adult concepts and deromanticised squeamishness make it less companion piece than antidote to the likes of the Twilight franchise, even as it concerns itself with the kind of manically devoted fanaticism recognisable in any ‘Twi-hard’. The fact that the viruses are like films – able to be commercially reproduced, (inadequately) engineered to prevent piracy, and themselves encoding the lives of their celebrity ‘stars’ – only adds to the impression that the film’s preoccupations are in part metacinematic. It hardly seems a coincidence that one of Antiviral’s more repellent characters, Levine (James Cade), is a filmmaker and a pornographer, transforming human vicissitudes into vicarious spectacles for personal consumption and recruiting the viewer’s gaze to narcissistic, masturbatory acts of objectified identification. For Antiviral too invites us into its idealised world of fabricated feelings and fantasies – although at the same time, by exposing that world’s horrific machinery, it keeps us at a distance.

Even as David Cronenberg has of late been occupying himself with the period psychodrama of A Dangerous Method (2011) or the socioeconomic parable of Cosmopolis (2012), other writer/directors have been busily revisiting the old spirit that marked his earlier works. So Vincenzo Natali’s Splice (2009) and Eron Sheean’s Errors of the Human Body (2012), both dark family tragedies addressing contemporary anxieties about genetic science, come clad in the sort of cerebral SF grue that was once Cronenberg’s specialty, while Panos Cosmatos’s defiantly backward-looking Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010) plays like a fetishistic pastiche of all Cronenberg’s 1980s output.

First-time writer/director Brandon Cronenberg not only has a special claim to his father’s legacy but also proves himself a worthy heir. The chilly dystopian setting (in Toronto!) of Antiviral, the transgressive sexuality, the repellent body horror, the sinister corporations, even the casting of Gadon (who also featured in both A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis), all unapologetically evoke the films of Cronenberg Sr.

Still, the father’s tropes are being appropriated to tell a new, different story. If the vision of Syd’s body merged with metal tubing, as seen in a febrile fantasy sequence, recalls the mutating antihero of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), it also prefigures both Hannah’s awful fate and Syd’s own role as an individual cog in a sinister machine. And so the younger Cronenberg maintains his inherited bloodline while giving the new flesh a different, distorted face. Growing gradually sicker and messier along with its conflicted protagonist, Antiviral is, in all its icily unpleasant ickiness, indeed perfect somehow.

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