Brandon Cronenberg finds sadness and squalor of celebrity obsession in impressive surreal debut
It would be nice, and respectful, to review this impressive debut by Brandon Cronenberg without making reference to the director’s parentage, but it’s near-impossible. When David Lynch met Isabella Rossellini, he supposedly told her that she could be Ingrid Bergman’s daughter, which of course she is; had this movie arrived in a white wrapper without identification of the director, critics might well have noted that it could have been made by a child (Outcrop? Spore?) of David Cronenberg. But more than one working Cronenberg is no bad thing, and this is a fresh, funny, creepy, stylish take on that blanked out, bleakly witty body horror that Dad trademarked during the 70s and 80s.
Antiviral tells of an alternative present in which fans pay to be infected with diseases from their favourite celebrities, as well as eating muscle tissue drawn from their adored bodies. Most worshipped is blonde sweetheart Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon); when she falls sick with something severe, clinic worker Syd March is enlisted to acquire a sample for distribution. As Syd, Caleb Landry Jones is a compelling presence: solemn-faced, and as wan as the production design around him, he’s nonetheless oddly likable, and holds the film’s emotional centre even as it pushes ever further into surreal nightmare.
The destructive fervour that surrounds celebrities is obviously the engine of Cronenberg’s idea, and he doesn’t have to stretch reality very far to find satire – pick up any gossip magazine and find adoration expressed through intrusion and criticism, sexual interest verging on the cannibalistic, and prurient preoccupation with medical conditions. But this commentary is elegant rather than obvious: Cronenberg finds the sadness and loneliness as well as the squalor in celebrity obsession. The film sags a little in its final third, and all the white-on-white interiors get a bit wearing for the eyes; but this chip off the old block has a strong talent behind it and much to recommend it.
Selected release from Fri 1 Feb.