Obsession with celebrity reaching frightening heights maybe the catalyst of Brandon Cronenberg’s debut film “ANTIVIRAL” (2012) but it it surely is not the focus point.
In a dystopian society, not too futuristic, fans of Hannah Geist (Geist meaning “ghost” in German, played by Sarah Gordon from Cosmopolis & A Dangerous Method ) go to great length to get a taste of their idol, by eating meat allegedly grafted from her and by acquiring her latest disease. Her diseases constitute a “line” sold by The Lucas Company, a corporation specializing in your everyday harmless virus infection such as herpes or the flue.
The film opens up with a shot of Syd March played by Caleb Landry Jones (who also starred in X-Men: First Class) with a thermometer in his mouth. His ethereal and ghostly look are matched by the floating white background that rudely turns out to be a poster of the aforementioned Hannah and the corporation. When Hannah is seriously ill, Syd is sent out to collect a sample of her illness for a future sale. He decides to be the human carrier of the virus in order to transmit it a third party, a pirate making money from illegal sales. Syd’s double agent-like behavior (think Videodrome) goes wrong and foul play comes into action. Malcolm McDowell plays the doctor who tries to help both patients, himself consumed by celebrity frenzy.
“Antiviral” subverts the depiction of infection by taking what was previously a common experience of an unwilling population and making it an isolated and individual choice. The transmission of such horrid diseases which you might have seen in Romero’s zombie films, started in the 70s with the rise of the AIDS paranoia but now, with Cronenberg it finds a radically different context, that of free will.The result is definitely a non-manicheistic movie with no genuine polar opposites, only a grotesque construction of “derivative products” of celebrities.
The outcome witnessed towards the end of the film, after some loose narration, is the complete reconstitution of a celebrity body through a Frankenstein type of infection making out of this human steak a human being reminiscent of eXistenZ.
There are several aesthetically fascinating aspects to the movie perceived through harmonious repetitions: A machine called “ReadyFace” actually puts a face to the virus it perceives and copyrights it. Just like celebrity portraits, patented viruses are corporate property and have their own special signature. The very images we see once this machine (that works almost like a camera but with a monitor instead of a lens) are truly amazing; distorted faces in an almost Francis Bacon-like manner. They resonate very well with the rest of the medical imagery dispersed throughout the movie. Close-ups of needles in veins are real and do nothing to spare the viewer the gut-wrenching repetition. Also, “Antiviral” borrows a lot from still life painting and could be winking at Peter Greenaway‘s flowers, vases, tulips through the painting at the office of The Lucas Company’s boss and in the corridor leading to Syd’s apartment which, despite of their beauty, only hit at eventual decay.
The fuzzy story-telling is sustained however by a gorgeous black and white chromatic palette; in Syd’s everyday outfits as well as white cubes, white shirts and posters, all brutally intercepted by red/black stains depicting his physical degradation. These stains are a constant throughout the film, especially with his blood-spitting ordeal under the watchful eye of a camera trying to transmit his suffering to Hannah’s audience (think La Mort en Direct by Bertrand Blier). Syd’s face only changes to express physical pain and so does his posture (like Christian Bale somewhere between Equilibrium and The Machinist) but his motivations remain unclear as to why he’s double-crossing his company. Is it money?
I would not want to compare Antiviral to David Cronenberg’s work anymore than I have done so already. The key is to look at the film as an independent oeuvre and enjoy its aesthetics (thanks to cinematographer Karim Hussein and moral ambiguity. The soundtrack by EC Woodley compliments the visuals but leaves you wanting more. Narration-wise, “Antiviral” is not the most solid movie out there but I am more than confident that Brandon Cronenberg will be delivering works no short of amazing in the near future.
Written by Haneen H aka Kinofrau
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