During the darkest days of the pandemic, there was a universal hankering for escape, from the grimness of the unendingly awful news and also from our homes, another country suddenly seeming more like another world. When stringent protocols had a financial and logistical impact on production, stories that took place in relatively remote locations with relatively small casts started to propagate. But what’s interesting about so many of them, from The Menu to Glass Onion to Triangle of Sadness to Fall to The White Lotus and now to Infinity Pool, is that the majority end up warping our desire to get away, cautionary tales of death and danger imploring us to stay home in order to survive.
Brandon Cronenberg’s thriller of lurid, and at times laughable, extremities takes us to a swish resort in the fictional state of Li Tolqa, an isolated idyll that lures writer James (Alexander Skarsgård) with his wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman). His last book was six years ago and he’s hoping to be inspired by the new surroundings. Instead inspiration comes from flirtatious actor Gabi (Mia Goth) and her architect husband Alban (Jalil Lespert) who take James under their wing.
You don’t have to be familiar with Goth’s recent fascination with high-pitch horror to know that this is not a couple to be trusted but James is seduced by their freewheeling nature and her wandering hand (an early scene of her masturbating him after he urinates is a shockingly graphic sign of things to come). But questions over fidelity are tabled when a drunk-driving accident sends James and Em to a local jail where an unlikely proposition is suggested. The punishment for the crime is execution but if James can afford it, a clone can be created, with all of his memories as well as his physicality, and he can be killed instead.
While Em is traumatised by the sight of her husband’s clone getting enthusiastically stabbed to death (again, shockingly graphic), James is weirdly compelled and finds himself part of a small group of tourists who have also gone through the same experience as him. Their time in Li Tolqa is dominated by hedonistic indulgence, pushing each other to wild levels of depravity and James must figure out how far he’s willing to go.
As with his last film, the Andrea Riseborough-starring Possessor, Cronenberg has fostered his father David’s interest in boundary-pushing body horror, pummeling his characters and us with gore and gristle. It’s effectively eye-opening and confidently choreographed but always at a remove, Skarsgård allured a little too quickly into indulging in terrible things. It is interesting to see him continue to trade in his conventional leading man looks for another bizarro role, this one pushing him further than we’ve seen him pushed before, from fighting himself while naked to getting breastfed by Goth, an actor who is again admirably committed, another capitalised go-for-broke performance. It’s not always successful but it’s hard to keep your eyes off her as she slinks her way into chaos.
There’s some initial unease over how the locals are portrayed – as mystical and uncivilised – but the script soon reveals that it’s the tourists who are the true barbarians, treating their surroundings with callous contempt, the film another addition to the recent string of one-percenter skewering satires. For a film filled with provocative and punishing imagery, it’s remarkable how little of it actually sticks in one’s mind once the credits roll. The “more is more” approach (hallucinations, orgies, pissing, stabbing, shooting, splitting, piercing etc) is attention-securing in the moment but oddly forgettable after, like waking up from a nightmare you can’t remember. Infinity Pool is too hectic to truly haunt.
Infinity Pool premiered at the Sundance film festival and will be released in US cinemas on 27 January and in the UK on 24 March