A Horrifying, Venomous Upper-Crust Tourism Satire, Infinity Pool Is a Gooey, Garish NightmareMovies Reviews Sundance 2023
Heartbeats and cumshots are the alpha and omega of Brandon Cronenberg’s vacation in White Lotus hell, where the tourists loosen their collars and let loose their lizard brains. The limbic system and the most basic biological processes of life dominate Infinity Pool, the filmmaker’s descent into a slimy, sexy, terrifying world where death is just another game for rich people. It’s a hit-and-run satire of Western nonsense, dismantling the havoc our destination-hopping upper-crust wreaks on other cultures and the faux-mystical enlightenment hawked by gurus and Goop fools—those too wealthy to have real problems, those aspiring to achieve this status, and those taking lucrative advantage of both. In this tropical trial, they spill into each other, forever and ever. Ego death has nothing on Brandon Cronenberg’s brilliantly warped resort.
Going on retreats where you take lots of drugs, screw your brains out and feel spiritually superior to everyone you know is quintessential high society behavior. It’s back in vogue for the sexually liberated and financially set-for-life. Of course Cronenberg would imagine the most punishing version, blasting these jerks and those striving to join them to the netherrealm. He’s not saying that it’s easy to deny the siren song—there’s rampant, sinister pleasure calling from the depths of Infinity Pool. Freedom from the real world. Freedom from the self-imposed pressures to succeed and produce. Freedom from consequences. But there’s no free lunch in this snake-infested ayahuasca Eden, even if you’re just snacking on apples.
The dangled, juicy lure isn’t subtle: A seemingly normal couple being approached by weird (probably swinging) Europeans always leads to trouble. We’d be fools not to be suspicious of Gabby (Mia Goth) and Al (Jalil Lespert) when they come up to their estranged hotel-mate couple James (Alexander Skarsgård) and Em (Cleopatra Coleman). One of them is played by Mia Goth, which is a sure sign to hightail it back to your room and flip the “do not disturb” sign. But James is a novelist, with one bad book to his name (The Variable Sheath, a fantastic fake title) that only got published because he married the rich publisher’s daughter. Gabby’s proclaimed fandom strokes the part of his ego that’s all but shriveled up and crumbled to dust—he’s weak, he’s hungry for it, he’s the perfect mark.
The younger Cronenberg puts his baggage up front: Feelings of creative inadequacy due to family ties, doubts about belonging to the high-profile circles his last two (quite good) films have likely set him in. These themes make the absurd actions of the narrative emotionally honest, and add weight to the nuttier nuances of Infinity Pool’s sarcastic bad trip.
When the white folks inevitably do something irreversibly horrible to the locals of Li Tolqa, their unprepared alienation in their culture is disturbingly hilarious. They don’t speak the language, and can’t read the forms the cops ask them to sign. But it’s stranger than that. Brilliant production design, location scouting and cinematography lock you into a late-night freakout.
Signs and confessional statements are written in chthonic runes, delivered in the belly of an Escher-like police station. Traditional masks look like scarred, melted faces, fused to the beautiful ones underneath in a disgusting dig at the monstrous hotties Instagramming their exploitations. An off-kilter score tweaks your ears. Any slow or obvious beat is disguised by tantalizing, upsetting aesthetic extravagance. Can you see where a rambunctious, Cassavetes-flavored night of debauchery is heading? Maybe, but you certainly won’t be able to describe the existential terrors its destination holds.
When the brilliantly berserk main twist arrives, gooey and screaming and submerged up to its face—like Cain in Dante’s Inferno, encased in ice for killing his kin—the fucked-up conceit rattles your bones. With even more flair and pizzazz than last year’s Dual, Infinity Pool is playing with doubles and surrogates to beautifully brutal effect. Death, birth and the distance that so many attempt to gain from such earthy things is captured in every frame. The floating unreality with which the film is shot, often abandoning the characters to pools of darkness or messes of flesh, zeroes in on the painful and primal. Remember that cumshot I was talking about?
Goth leads this carnival with a barker’s insistent audacity. James is putty, a non-entity who can’t believe he ended up in this situation—eventually taking on the visual language of utter submission. Skarsgård is enjoyably stagnant, shocked. His towering masculinity folds over and over, his meekness always looking to hide behind a prop. Gabby is a racist Cronenbergian tradwife, bullying him into more primitive displays of masculinity, and scary as shit. She jokes, cajoles, seduces and screeches. There are rowdy, snowballing, immobilizing situations that unfurl over the course of Infinity Pool, but Goth’s cruel ringleader laughs through them all. She’s holding the leash from the beginning, but the toxic dynamic only intensifies into a frenzy of total psychosexual madness.
Getting too deeply into what exactly happens in Infinity Pool is like outlining the recirculating edge of its title’s horizon-flouting construction. It won’t take away from its pleasures, but you can’t really understand until you’re in it. Until Cronenberg drives you down an unlit backroad, long enough that you start wondering if you’re dreaming or awake. But what’s clearest in this gallows comedy is that its characters exist. The people who think they’ve solved reality, the conceited class with the luxury of being horny for death, because death has never been real to them. Infinity Pool’s inspired critique of this crowd is fierce and funny, its hallucinations nimble and sticky, and its encompassing nightmare one you’ll remember without needing to break out the vacation slideshow.
Director: Brandon Cronenberg
Writer: Brandon Cronenberg
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Mia Goth, Cleopatra Coleman, Jalil Lespert
Release Date: January 21, 2023 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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