“They wanted to have a good time, but they were like children playing in the street; they could see one after another of them being killed – run over, maimed, destroyed – but they continued to play anyhow.” –_ Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly (1977)
The characters of Brandon Cronenberg’s hotly anticipated science-fiction horror, Infinity Pool (2023), are wealthy holidaymakers out for a good time. The story begins when we’re introduced to struggling novelist James Foster (Alexander Skarsgård) and his wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman), who are on vacation at a luxury resort in the fictional country of Li Tolqa. There’s an unspoken tension between the couple, betrayed by their body language and reluctance to agree with one another.
Meeting Gabi Bauer (Mia Goth) and her husband, Alban (Jalil Lespert), the couples venture beyond the resort’s secure perimeter. Enjoying a picnic on the coast, the day’s pleasantries are upturned when James accidentally runs down and kills a local man. Fleeing the scene, the couples are tracked down by the police, and James is offered a choice: execution, or if he can afford it, pay to have a double of himself produced, who will be executed in his place.
Returning to the resort, Em pleads with James to quickly pack their things, but when he can’t find his passport, the couple is stuck there. James soon finds himself entering the hedonistic and violent activities of Gabi, Alban, and two other couples, who enjoy watching their doubles being executed. While Cronenberg’s creative premise of doubles puts a creative spin on the idea of being maimed and destroyed, Dick’s opening sentiment in his semi-autobiographical story rings true here.
The title presentation is no Saul Bass moment, but with the font and colour, and although it does not fit on the screen as it is presented so large, it’s pleasing to the eye. The spiralling or rotating camera as it pans over the resort builds the anticipation of Cronenberg and cinematographer Karim Hussain’s visual ambition, creating a disorientating and dreamlike feel.
Infinity Pool’s visual aesthetic cannot be faulted with its expressionistic peaks and tempered troughs. The picturesque coast with the blue ocean is juxtaposed with the impression of a poor country where wealthy foreign tourists are preyed upon. Later, the dry and humid landscape visually accentuates James’ hellish plight, while the sex orgy is presented through a psychedelic lens.
Cronenberg and Hussain cultivate moments of a dreamlike and surreal aesthetic that, when grounded, creates an effective hangover from expressionism. Much of Infinity Pool remains – if not in that haze of semi-consciousness – in fatigued sleepiness, giving the impression of being in a dream that feels frighteningly real.
The director’s full-blooded and hard-hitting body horror sophomore feature, Possessor (2020), elevated expectations for Infinity Pool. Neither Cronenberg nor his rising stars, Skarsgård and Goth can meet nor overcome these expectations. Infinity Pool might be labelled an indulgent film, a short story unnecessarily stretched to a run time of nearly two hours.
Like his father [David Cronenberg], the direction walks a fine line between concept and its execution. Possessor and Infinity Pool require a total commitment to the expression of their ideas – the director must engage in the commentary. The stories cannot afford to be passive or aloof, and Cronenberg must be attentive to the abstract shadows of their conceptual ideas that can trip them up.
Unlike its predecessor, however, Infinity Pool leans towards being a mainstream studio film trying to be provocative. Lacking is the narrative conviction, where Cronenberg lets the intriguing concept of doubles married to themes of crime and punishment and the class system go to waste.
Some audiences will be placated by what they see as a visually provocative film. Does this reveal how inhibited we are? Cinema has continued to breach generational boundaries of acceptability, and there’s little here that’s freshly provocative. Gabi gives James a handjob, and we see the ejaculation onscreen. There are naked bodies intertwined in a sexual orgy, naked bodies in a home invasion murder, and James sucks on Gabi’s teat. Is this visually provocative in 2023, when the film is directed by an arresting filmmaker, with actors willing to bare their bodies and souls?
Indeed, sexual visuals or not, when you consider the films of David Cronenberg and Gaspar Noé, or Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1976 film, Saló, is Infinity Pool a provocative film? An affirmative response might suggest how inhibited, sheltered, and naïve we are to think so.
Any visual provocation is a bandaid for a lack of ambition we hope and expect from Cronenberg, who is inexplicably holding himself back here. This shallowness, however, mirrors the feelings of the characters. Despite their success and wealth, they’re stuck in an existential crisis. They’re searching for something, and this annual holiday where they commit murder and pay for their doubles to be executed as they look on is their expensive and depraved tonic.
We learn little about the other characters other than what Gabi and Alban do for work and how they first met. Neither do we know much about James and Em, who leaves Li Tolqa without her husband. We know her father is a publisher, and she married James because of “daddy issues”. We know James is trying to write his second novel after his first was critically panned six years earlier.
Character development is mostly missing in Infinity Pool, with the entire story existing in a black hole. Maybe that’s the point. Is Cronenberg addressing the idea that life is a prison? Is he thinking about how rarely anybody knows who they are, and rarer still, the person they want to be?
In a late scene, Gabi says to James that she wants to see what’s beneath that larval shell of his. By the end of Infinity Pool, we see the sombre and sober tourists returning home. Without her make-up, Gabi appears as a shadow of her former self. From her charming and subdued presence when she first met James and Em, she transformed into a delightfully wicked tormentor, a spoilt and violent madam with her cackling cry of “Jamsey!”
She and the others are matter-of-fact yet affable, discussing domestic affairs as they ride the bus to the airport. It seems they’ve put their masks back on, repressing their true natures, or shadow complexes, to resume their civilised and unfulfilling lives.
For James, he went searching for inspiration, only to find the self-destruction of his already fragile identity. James is like one of those children playing in the street who watches his double being maimed and destroyed but still continues to play.
The concluding thought Cronenberg leaves us with is hardly compelling. We’re left to feel disgusted towards the cast of characters and pity for James, who seems more lost at Infinity Pool‘s end. Looking at James, a broken man, the director is teasing a thought about how change can leave us more alone and broken than before. Sometimes, there’s no way to return to a past life or sense of self. Here, Infinity Pool is a story about how living can mean one is dead on the inside. Some hide it better than others.
Beneath its surface, Infinity Pool has a swell of potential ideas to develop had the director not inexplicably distanced himself. Cronenberg seemingly fell into the trap of being content to present the ugliness and horror, minus the thoughtfulness. Infinity Pool raises the expectations for his next film – will he return as a filmmaker driven by the richness of ideas, or will he be content to offer his audience another superficial experience?
Infinity Pool premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It was released theatrically in the US by Neon on 27 January 2023 and is now available to stream. Universal released it theatrically in the UK on 24 March 2023.