Whether it is on the level of style, theme or pedigree, Brandon Cronenberg’s new film Antiviral is sure to divide critical and popular reception. Audiences will almost universally fit into two categories: those who walk away inspired and those who will walk away alienated, detached and bitter. The film tackles celebrity culture in a wholly original way, focusing on our desire to consume them physically. Sid (Caleb Landry Jones) is an employee in a company that sells viruses that have been gathered from celebrities and sells them to an adoring public who will stop at anything to get a little closer to their favourite star. Things go awfully wrong however, when he becomes infected with a virus that kills the celebrity he has gathered it from.
With a carefully laid out universe, there is an almost immediate sense of discomfort and disorientation as the audience is left grappling at the question “what has brought us to this point”? Carefully evaded throughout, we are already deep in a world where the average person delights and obsesses over the flesh of celebrities. Not only in a horrific desire to be infected with viruses (from colds to herpes), but in a television media obsessed with apparent “anal problems” of stars, restaurants that serve meat grown from celebrity cells and artificial intelligences in the form of the celebrity. The digital artificial intelligence is the most conceivable (and perhaps, conceptually the most comfortable as it does not entail the actual meatyness of the physical body) to the contemporary audience, however, Cronenberg does not allow us to feel any comfort in this digital reality through his complex representation: The digital image of a celebrity is on a screen, naked but covered, totally frightened as she repeatedly engages with an absent viewer/participant, asking them if they want to see her harm herself. This feels to be the closest we get to the real crux of relationship with celebrity that the film is presenting, from the divide between body and soul to the uncomfortably close relationship between adoration and destruction.
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The film relies very heavily on the Brandon Cronenberg’s clinical settings and unusual compositions. Many of the scenes unravelling in impossible white spaces and many of the shots are constructed in such a way, that the human form is divided or insignificant. Caleb Landry Jones similarly holds a lot of power in this film, not only through his complex portrayal of Sid, but in his physicality – which is at once imposing and vulnerable. Again, contradiction becomes an important factor in the film’s universe. The narrative itself is strong; however it seems to lose focus in the second half. Though, I couldn’t exactly say why.
Antiviral is a bewildering adventure into our not too distant future, taking audiences to task with their obsession with celebrity culture. No one in this universe seems immune from its influence, suggesting a rather troubling future for us all. Not everyone will buy into this gory, disturbing cinema, but I am left wondering if maybe Brandon Cronenberg is a bit ahead of its time with this film. The film does not feel like a product from 2012, but one from the future. This is by far one of the most exciting Canadian horror films in years, and it is an utter pleasure to see a film that relies heavily on practical effects as opposed to CGI. Brandon Cronenberg may not have quite found his footing, but he has certainly left an impression.
Festival Du Nouveau Cinema runs Oct. 1st – 21st in Montreal. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please visit their official site.