Sundance 2023 review: Infinity Pool (Brandon Cronenberg)

“No matter how deep it dwells in sci-fi structures, it always comes back to one certainty: when justice is a matter of money, only the poor are punished.”

As the screening of Brandon Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool came to an end, I found myself amazed not only by the film itself but by how much it made me think of Jamaica Kincaid’s book A Small Place. For Kincaid writes about her heritage and the legacy of centuries of European colonization, in her case focusing on Antigua and its history. Time passes but not without leaving marks, and for the author modern-day tourism, a topic central to Cronenberg`s film, is one of this dark past’s current manifestations.

Cronenberg, despite filming from a completely different historical background, seems to understand that the act of sightseeing, of fetishizing other people’s cultures, and the possibility of enjoying public and private structures that natives often can never dream of, is more than a narrative act; it’s also a violent one. Here these two distant bodies of work from a Canadian film director known for his sci-fi horror films and an Antiguan American novelist, essayist, and gardener converge. There are always two countries, that which one talks about and that which one lives in; in the end, no matter how much beauty there might be, it doesn’t nullify the possibility of violence. In Kincaid’s words, “Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives – most natives in the world – cannot go anywhere,” because, “They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live”.

In this context Infinity Pool uses James, a failed writer, as its narrative focus. James (Alexander Skarsgård) is a torn man, haunted by his own failures and the certainty that his only published manuscript was released because he is married to the daughter of an influential editor. This is a key point of Cronenberg’s screenplay: human interactions are, in a way, an exchange process. Some people sell, some people buy, and others steal. Hence it is only logical that James’ first acquaintance in this heaven-like resort is Gabi (a brilliant Mia Goth), who introduces herself as a fan who loves James’ book. He is an insecure man, and it took only a compliment to allure him to a group of hedonistic, sadistic, violent rich people. It is worth mentioning that despite Infinity Pool never fully addressing James’ economic status, we know that he married a rich woman and is supported by her so that he can fulfil his artistic aspirations. In this sense, he functions here almost as an allegorical (upper) middle-class man who believes himself to be closer to the top 1% than to the working class and to poor people. This is an illusion, although an important one, for it helps to keep the status quo.

Cronenberg’s resort is set in a fictional country, but heavily characterized as one of the oil-rich Middle East countries. This is a place in which sodomy and even profanity is punishable by death, and yet despite that, or perhaps because of it, it attracts the ultra-rich who stay inside luxurious resorts, and from the fences that protect them from the outside they can see the “uncivilized”, as Gabi defines the native people in one scene.

Thus they have multicultural dining experiences, watch angry citizens protest as a form of entertainment, and even disguise themselves with cultural masks that seem to be shaped after deformed faces. They are the beautiful ones, and the native people are the opposite. In a way, seeing Cronenberg’s characters wearing these ugly masks makes me think of another point of convergence between Infinity Pool and A Small Place, for Kincaid states that when someone becomes a tourist, they also become “an ugly, empty thing, a stupid thing, a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that” and that “it will never occur […] that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just paused cannot stand you.” The deformed masks are thus their real faces.

Finally, departing from this ugliness, Cronenberg approaches the problem from the other side of the fence. His monstrous characters are the ones who cannot leave because it is precisely their condition of foreignness that grants them their power. What money can buy outside is not the same that it can buy when they are back home. In a sense, Infinity Pool highlights Kincaid’s argument of modern tourism as one of the many developments of colonization. Their condition of being civilized depends directly on denying others their humanity, making the other the uncivilized one.

To sum it all up, in Infinity Pool this complex power structure is represented by a device developed by a corrupt government that accepts money from rich tourists and clones them to apply the eventual death sentence for their crimes to their doubles, not to the real person. And as far as Cronenberg allows his movie to go, even with all the piss, vomit, a cum shot, mutilations and one of the most beautiful orgy scenes that I am aware of; or even, no matter how deep it dwells in sci-fi structures, it always comes back to one certainty: when justice is a matter of money, only the poor are punished. By trying to be a member of this elusive club, James kills and sees himself getting killed many times up to a point that when the realization that he is not a part of that inner circle comes, he cannot say for sure that he is the one who registered in the resort, or if it was one of the many copies. In the end, in a constant process of consuming the life of regular people and mimicking his rich colleagues, James himself is left stranded without an identity or a place to go.