Oct. 10, 2012 - Issue #886: Typhoon Judy
The depths of obsession
Director Brandon Cronenberg—son of famed director David Cronenberg—is examining the depths of this obsession in his debut film, an official selection for the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival and Cannes Film Festival. Not a bad start for the young director.
Cronenberg has created an oddity of a film set in an eerie, dystopian environment where celebrity mania has reached an all-time high. The film's lead is Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), a clinician who works for the Lucas Clinic, a facility where the general public are willing to pay a hefty price to be injected with a non-infectious disease harvested from a real celebrity—all in the name of feeling somehow connected to their idol.
Syd, an intense and enigmatic individual, spends his monotonous days injecting eager customers with the malady of their choice, all while smuggling various illnesses after hours to sell on the black market. One of the celebrities du jour is movie starlet Hannah Geist (Sara Gadon), and Syd finds himself seemingly in over his head when he's called to her house to extract her mysterious illness to unleash on the masses. Syd winds up catching the illness himself and must investigate the cause of the infection to save her life, as well as his own.
Antiviral is a skin-crawling piece of film full of nightmarish imagery, set in a world where consumers do creepy things such as buying harvested cell "steaks" made of cells from different celebrities, just as they would a normal piece of meat. Everyone seems consumed by the mania, but really, is that so far from our own? Set against a bleak back drop of stark whites, grays and blacks, punctuated frequently by bright crimson blood, Antiviral is a complex entity, filled with satire and social commentary to juxtapose its more grisly elements. A word to the wise: if needles make you squeamish, you may want to give this one a pass.
Inevitably, Antiviral's body horror vibe immediately draws comparisons to the elder Cronenberg's work. While there may be some similarities, the film stands up on its own as a solid effort, albeit a disturbing one.
Vue caught up with the Cronenberg over the phone to discuss the inspiration for his dark film, what he thinks of celebrity culture, and how Antiviral's exaggerated celebrity obsession may not be so far removed from today's.
Vue Weekly: The idea for Antiviral came to you when you were sick while at film school in Toronto and got you thinking about the intimacy involved in illness. What sparked the connection between the two?
Brandon Cronenberg: I guess it was the fact that I was having a weird fever dream and it sort of skewed my perspective a little bit. Obviously we all get sick fairly commonly, but I was in a headspace where I was looking at it differently and obsessing over the fact that I had something physically in my body that had come from someone else's body ... we don't usually see it that way, but it's true. The virus is actually produced by infected cells in someone else's body, so it's hugely intimate in that way.
VW: How did that idea then spread to celebrity obsession?
BC: I was in film school and I was trying to write something, I was trying to think of a character who would see disease as an intimate thing, and who could imagine a celebrity obsessed fan imagining getting Angelina Jolie's cold as a way of feeling somehow physically connected to her. That sort of developed from there into a metaphor that I liked.
VW: How do you think the extreme measure of obsession in Antiviral can reflect on celebrities and society today?
BC: Well, I think it sort of represents a loss of perspective and critical thinking, or maybe an absence of perspective and critical thinking that I think is unhealthy. It's also something that is perpetuated and exploited by the industry of celebrity.
VW: Do you think we could ever get to that point where we're taking measures like people do in the film?
BC: I think we're pretty close to it already. I mean, some of the science is science fiction in the film, but most of it is pretty close to what could be done and I think it's only a very slight exaggeration of trends that are already in our culture.
VW: Why do you think society's become so obsessed with celebrity?
BC: I don't think it's anything new really. I think it kind of connects to a broader human impulse to deify people. If you look at say, sainthood, people elevated almost to the status of gods and the iconography, even the physical fetishism. Old churches would claim to have, and still do claim to have, the finger bones of a particular saint, so I think that's something that we do as human beings that isn't unique to our culture. I think it's particularly ferocious in our culture because of the rate that we consume media and I think celebrities are made by visibility, by repetition of images, so people become famous extremely quickly these days and famous in a way that is totally disconnected from any sort of accomplishment.
VW: The main character, Syd, remains a bit of a mystery throughout the film. We never really get to know him that much aside from his work. Was that intentional?
BC: I wanted to leave him as sort of a bit blank so that he could stand in for anyone who's kind of a product of that culture. He feels sort of removed from it and somehow superior to it, but he's actually completely defined by it. We're all defined by our environments even if we feel we've somehow escaped that.
VW: Speaking of Syd, what made Caleb Landry Jones the best choice to portray that type of character?
BC: When I saw the work he had done, there wasn't one specific thing that jumped out at me. It was more that kind of hard-to-articulate exciting thing that some actors have. He has this really fascinating screen presence and obviously was a very nuanced physical actor. There was just something sort of hard to describe that was exciting when I saw him and that's always a good sign, especially because it's such a subjective film. He's in every scene and in almost every shot, so it needed to be someone who would be able to carry that, and someone intense and sort of fascinating to watch and interesting to look at.
Opens Friday, October 12, 2012
Directed by: Brandon Cronenberg
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