Antiviral: Cannes Review

Pass the sick bag, there’s a new Cronenberg on the block.

Brandon Cronenberg writes and directs the film in which clinic employees buy strains of live viruses from celebrities and inject them into paying customers as the ultimate form of communion.

CANNES - If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, David Cronenberg should be feeling pretty chuffed with son Brandon’s big-screen debut, a petri dish of high-concept perversity and cultural commentary teeming with lo-fi ickiness.

Clearly weaned on dad’s early body-horror films such as Shivers and Scanners, the 32-year-old Canadian writer-director gives a sardonic, Cronenbergian twist to a very au courant subject: the sickness of celebrity worship. It’s a topic ripe with potential, and the younger Cronenberg takes off down some gratifyingly weird alleys as he follows the travails of a young man peddling the viruses of ill celebrities to obsessed fans.

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An overly mannered approach throws the pacing off, however, and some ungainly tilts at exposition are more jarring than the conventionally repellent close-ups of needles piercing skin.

But it’s early days. Brandon Cronenberg is the scion of a phenomenon, working in the same freaky field, so the curiosity factor is high. A berth in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes – a high-profile debut that coincides with a new film from his father, who is premiering the lurid thriller Cosmopolis in competition – gives Cronenberg Jr. the nod as an embryonic talent, a genre director with an added kink.

An obsession with disease and decay is obviously encoded in the family DNA and here it is visited upon a spindly clinic worker named Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), who theatrically deteriorates over the course of the film after he is infected with a mystery virus harvested from the body of starlet Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon).

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Against a backdrop of unhealthy celebrity mania – trashy magazines and non-stop TV coverage serve as wallpaper – Syd and his cohorts at the Lucas Clinic work to exploit the desire of the most rabid fans to get closer to their idols. They buy strains of live viruses from the famous and inject them into paying customers as the ultimate form of communion.

Cinematographer Karim Hussain shoots these early scenes starkly, making them sterile and whiter-than-white, perfectly primed for when the blood begins to flow.

Syd supplements his income by smuggling viruses out in his own body to sell to black marketeer Arvid (Joe Pingue), owner of a butcher’s shop that flogs celebrity cell steaks (best not to ask). He goes a step too far when he injects himself with an exotic virus that has laid Hannah Geist low and wakes from a hallucinatory trance to find the young starlet has died. Catapulting Syd into a disorderly tumult of commercial espionage, double-crosses and assassination attempts, Cronenberg loses his grip on the material, interjecting some stomach-churning inspection of an orifice or bodily fluid every now and then to jolt the narrative back on track.

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Caleb Landry Jones (X-Men: First Class, Contraband) gives an unnerving performance hauling round his freckled wreck of a body, and Sarah Gadon (Jung’s perpetually pregnant wife in A Dangerous Method who re-teams with Cronenberg Sr. for Cosmopolis) is porcelain-perfect as an object of desire. Malcolm McDowell pops up briefly as the starlet’s personal medico, anchoring his few scenes with veteran gravitas.

Creaking technology summons a defiantly 1980s vibe, echoed in the thrum of E.C. Woodley’s subterranean soundtrack, discordant with analogue synths.  

Cast: Caleb Landry Jones, Sarah Gadon, Malcolm McDowell, Nicholas Campbell

Production company: Rhombus Media

Writer/director: Brandon Cronenberg

Producer: Niv Fichman

Director of photography: Karim Hussain

Production designer: Arvinder Grewal

Costume designer: Patrick Antosh

Music: E.C. Woodley

Editor: Matthew Hannam

Sales: TF1

No rating, 110 minutes