Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
May 2013

Antiviral

Celebrity transubstantiation

Brandon Cronenberg follows in his father's body-horror footsteps with the obvious but caustic satire 'Antiviral'

Antiviral
IFC Films
Director: Brandon Cronenberg
Screenplay: Brandon Cronenberg
Starring: Caleb Landry Jones, Sarah Gadon, Joe Pingue, Nicholas Campbell, Sheila McCarthy and Malcolm McDowell
Rated R / 1 hour, 48 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)

Consumption of celebrity culture gets a literal interpretation in Antiviral, a cold and acerbic satire from writer/director Brandon Cronenberg. True to the filmmaker's namesake (his father, as you probably guessed, is David), the film is explicitly concerned with the body, and the ways it can be immortalized, fetishized, possessed.

The bodies in this case are those of celebrities, which for a reasonable sum you can get a piece of. You want a touch of that flu he had last week? You got it. You want that strain of herpes she caught? It's yours. It'll be just liked she kissed you. Viruses, infections, skin rashes, blood disorders - it's all big business.

And if that's not enough, you can head over to the butcher's shop for some fresh meat, grown from his or her very own skin cells. "I don't understand how this isn't considered cannibalism," one character remarks. The current legal justification, he's told, is that the process is considered more of a sacrament than anything else.

The celebrities give their bodies willingly. At the first sign of a cold, their agents call their contacts in the industry and make sure they get a sample while the virus is still ripe. Many celebs even have exclusive contracts with one company or another - a one-stop shop for all your Hannah Geist needs. Everyone knows when an A-lister gets sick, simply because it's good for business. And it's not just a cold or a flu or an STD that customers absorb - it's every story surrounding the cold, or the flu, or the STD. It's where they were when they contracted it. It's what they were doing. It's who they were with. It's the rumors swirling around about this body part or that.

You'll notice how ambiguous the term "celebrity" is throughout Antiviral. As far as I remember, there's not a single mention of what any of these people are famous for. They just . . . are. Which is just as well, because in this world (and, let's face it, in ours, too), such details don't matter. Famous is famous.

Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) is a sampler for the Lucas Clinic, whose most famous property is the aforementioned Ms. Geist (Sarah Gadon, who also recently starred in David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis). When we first see him, he looks ill, and indeed his poor health will only continue to worsen as the film goes along. As airtight as the company's security thinks it is, Syd has been more than able to smuggle viruses into his own body, free of charge, to feed what has become an addiction. Even a purpose.

The office of the clinic is a sci-fi cliche, but a reasonably effective one. Blinding white all-around, sterilized and impersonal. It works well enough for the film's purposes, but the stark blankness of the ceilings and floors, and the minimalist affectations on the walls, don't look all that dissimilar from, say, a Progressive auto insurance commercial. It's essentially an image we've seen over and over again for years on end. Cronenberg makes it work, but it would have been nice if as much of the strange imagination that went into his concepts had gone into his set design.

But oh well. There remains plenty more to admire about the film, starting first and foremost with Jones' anguished and physical performance as Syd. The way his body turns on him thanks to both his profession and his addiction makes for fertile material, and Jones singlehandedly turns his character's condition into the film's greatest visual symbol.

Well, OK - second-greatest. Because nothing else in Antiviral can quite compare to the brilliant piece of orificial imagery in the closing scene, which both specifically parallels his dad's most famous visual from Videodrome and, in my opinion, nearly equals it.

At face value, what Cronenberg is saying about celebrity culture and worship may be quite obvious. But taking it to the perverse degrees he takes it not only provides a twisted and darkly comic prism through which to see it, but allows him to indulge in broader ideas about both the body and the mind. In doing so, he arrives at some tantalizing concepts.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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