CANNES – Well, as the old saying goes, the diseased and throbbing apple does not fall far from the penis-shaped flesh tree. Or at least, that’s a variation on the old saying that seems applicable when you’re talking about the debut film from Brandon Cronenberg, son of the king of body horror, David Cronenberg.
“Antiviral” is playing here as part of the Un Certain Regard section of the festival, and I walked into it knowing nothing aside from Cronenberg’s parentage. I wasn’t even sure if it was in the same general realm as the work that made his father a legend in horror. After watching a steady stream of people bolt for the exits during the film’s screening, I think it’s safe to say that he has inherited his father’s knack for making people deeply uncomfortable about topics that are personal to the point of feeling invasive. I don’t think he’s just imitating his father, either. While there may be some thematic similarity, Brandon Cronenberg has made a darkly comic, deeply unpleasant first film that deserves to be considered on its own merits.
Caleb Landry Jones, last seen on movie screens as Banshee in “X-Men: First Class,” stars here as Syd March, a guy who works for a company that specializes in selling celebrity diseases to people. Yes, you read that right. Celebrities make exclusive deals with biotech firms which harvest their various illnesses, distill them, and then inject them into regular people who want to share something in common with their favorite movie star or model. Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon) is one of the most important of the clients that are signed by the company that Syd works for, and as the film opens, we see him infecting a fan named Edward Porris (Douglas Smith) with Hannah’s herpes, right where he would have caught it if she kissed him.
Syd’s not the most trustworthy of employees, though. He infects himself with many of his company’s most valuable strains, then extracts them at home once he’s full-blown sick and reverse engineers the viral DRM off of them so that he can sell the diseases to black-market pirates. One of his best customers, a guy named Arvid (Joe Pingue), runs a butcher’s shop where they sell steaks that are grown from celebrity muscle cells. It is a vile world that Cronenberg imagines here, but it’s not that far off from the disturbing amounts of worship already focused on celebrities by our culture, or from the freaky things that people hire medical professionals to do to them voluntarily these days. If it were truly impossible to imagine a world where this occurred, then the film wouldn’t have any power, and it’s hard to deny that there are places where “Antiviral” really gets under your skin.
The film does feel like a first feature, though. There’s really one big idea here, and once that’s in play, the film just sort of goes in circles. I like the little touches, the things that flesh out the world that Cronenberg has created, and there are great gruesome little grace notes throughout. Still, there’s a muted quality to everything that may be an intentional choice, but it doesn’t really work. It keeps everything at such a remove that it’s hard to get too shaken by it. When David Cronenberg was working at his best in films like “Videodrome” or “The Brood,” there was a constant friction between text and subtext that made the films feel dangerous. As freaky as “Antiviral” is at times, I never felt like the film was cutting deep enough to leave a scar, and that could just be a matter of Brandon needing to get some more experience as a director.
It’s a handsome film, shot with a clinical reserve by Karim Hussain, and it feels like Cronenberg has control over what he’s doing here. If this is where he’s starting his career, then it’s going to be very exciting to watch his work develop in the years ahead, and I suspect his voice will get clearer and even more distinct. It may not work for me across the board, but there’s enough about “Antiviral” to like that I would tell anyone who likes disturbing cinema to add this to their list of films to watch for in the coming year.