Luxury vacations have taken quite the hit on the cinematic Yelp scale over the past few years — in Old (2021), two seasons of The White Lotus and The Menu (2022), the desire to get away for a little while is gradually replaced by the horror of being unable to leave. At a beach, a luxury resort and a remote fine-dining restaurant, the food and drinks flow (often laced with psychedelics), the beauty of the landscape becomes a backdrop for the ugliness of human nature and the guests who are guaranteed an experience to die for usually do. The bleakest and most sinister addition to this mini trend so far is Infinity Pool, its ideas of class and criminally obscene wealth similar to The White Lotus and The Menu but its nightmarish visions wholly Cronenbergian.
Right from the beginning, Brandon Cronenberg (yes, son of David) uses askew frames and disorienting 360° pans to establish a pervasive sense of vertiginous unease. On a drive, there’s something unnatural about how the mountains seem to slip past. And even the title itself, Infinity Pool, referring to the kind of pool that appears to merge into the sea, points to an illusion that will eventually, dizzyingly unravel.
At the fictional island of Li Tolqa, author James Foster (Alexander Skarsgard) and his wealthy wife Emma (Cleopatra Coleman) cross paths with fellow resort guests Gabi (Mia Goth) and her husband Alban (Jalil Lespert). Gabi claims to be a fan of James’ first and only novel written six years earlier, though the way she gazes at him from across the dinner table suggests an interest that’s far more carnal. In depicting James as a clueless interloper looking to squeeze a foreign land for a few drops of literary inspiration, Cronenberg takes aim at gauche tourists who have too much money to burn, queuing up a set of disconcerting consequences. When James accidentally commits a crime, Li Tolqa’s laws dictate that he be executed. Unless, of course, he chooses to be part of a programme that will create a clone to be killed in his stead.
It’s with this idea that Cronenberg positions Infinity Pool as a companion piece to his previous film Possessor (2020), in which assassins could temporarily upload their consciousness into another person’s body to carry out hits undetected. If in Possessor, the idea was to get someone else to do the killing, Infinity Pool takes it a step further by getting the clones to believe that they’re genuinely guilty of the crime. Both movies, with their visuals of malleable plastic faces, explore the slipperiness of identity, and the dangers of what it means to sever the tether to yours. Both consider what it is to be human, in worlds where even the fundamental concepts of guilt and death can be outsourced to someone else. How does James, who awakens from the procedure at the same time as his clone, know that he’s the original? Is it more frightening that he doesn’t care?
He begins to exploit the programme to his advantage, engaging in increasingly dangerous crimes with his new friends, secure in the knowledge that he can avoid the consequences. Having earlier felt emasculated by his wife’s wealth, James is now lured by the chance to give in to his baser animal instincts. What he might not realise, until a scene in which a character calls to him as one would a pet dog, is that he’s been on a tight leash the whole time. Skarsgard plays his character as a man with a haunted face and perpetually stooped shoulders, carrying the weight of his failures and feeling a bruised ego as acutely as any physical hurts. And if Li Tolqa is a hedonistic Garden of Eden, Goth is mesmerising its serpent, alternately seductive and scornful.
Cronenberg paves the twisted road to his conclusion with extreme closeups of gore and violence, neon-lit, hallucinogen-induced terrors and a growing sense of dread from which there appears no escape. By the end, a film in which a man must potentially fight the dog version of his double to the death might not be to everyone’s tastes, but anyone who’s ever had to sacrifice a part of themselves to blend into an unfamiliar setting will appreciate the scope of this director’s imagination.