Infinity Pool (2023)

A lot of people are going to write off Brandon Cronenberg’s latest sci-fi horror Infinity Pool as a disappointing follow-up to Possessor, when it’s really just an ill-timed one.  Cronenberg wrote Infinity Pool during the years-long lull between his debut feature Antiviral and his COVID-era breakout Possessor, and it’s only the industrial happenstance of production scheduling that determined which of his second & third projects reached the screen first.  You can feel the frustration of his stop-and-start project developments seeping through the text.  Alexander Skarsgård stars as a hack novelist whose privileged familial connections have kept him afloat in the six years since his debut work was critically skewered then forgotten, which positions him as a kind of self-satirical avatar for Cronenberg as a nepo-baby auteur on a long, winding road to acclaim.  It doesn’t make much sense for the director to quickly follow up his greatest success to date with a Charlie Kaufmann-style writer’s block thriller—wherein a frustrated creative gets themselves into exponential cosmic trouble simply because they cannot produce—but Cronenberg doesn’t have control over which of his scripts are greenlit when, so that out-of-sync feeling is totally forgivable in context.  That’s not what makes the film ill-timed; it’s how similar his Skarsgård avatar’s cosmic trouble is to other recent films & television programs that partially dulls Infinity Pool‘s sharpest edges.

While vacationing with his benefactor wife (Cleopatra Coleman) at an Eastern European luxury resort in a futile search for creative inspo, James Foster (Skarsgård) is recruited into an informal crime ring of ultra-wealthy hedonists, led by a hothead babe with a babydoll London accent (Mia Goth).  These international elites have discovered a nifty loophole that allows them to get away with murdering & pillaging the impoverished locals outside the resort, suffering no consequences for their crimes outside frequent trips to the ATM for stacks of bribe money.  As a diplomatic, bureaucratic measure, the local government has developed technology to clone the wealthy tourists and have their doubles suffer the consequences instead, only requiring that the wanton criminals watch justice be served in increasingly ultraviolent geek shows.  The transgression of watching their own deaths proves addictive, and their crimes only become more pointless & brazen so they can return to the executioners’ theatre.  James’s major mistake is assuming that he is accepted among the group as an equal, but since he married into wealth instead of “earning” it himself, his new clique treats him as just another plaything – pushing him to indulge in grotesque, humiliating acts for their amusement.  On some psychosexual sublevel, he appears to enjoy this social torture, or he’s at least reluctant to put a stop to it.

I doubt Cronenberg would have timed the distribution of Infinity Pool to January 2023 if he knew how many thematic parallels it would find on the current pop culture landscape.  After seeing Glass Onion, The Menu, Triangle of Sadness, and season two of White Lotus all become pop culture talking points in such a short stretch, it’s probably time to pump the brakes on skewering the ultra-wealthy for using other people’s lives as a consequence-free playground for a while.  That said, I’ve enjoyed most of those tee-ball satires for their individual doses of class-politics catharsis and, although a late addition to the collection, Infinity Pool is the one that most directly panders to my fucked-up tastes.  You cannot pack the frame with this many strobe lights, gore gags, hallucinatory orgies, and creepy masks without me walking away smiling.  Letting Mia Goth loose to terrorize Skarsgård as a crazed domme armed with fried chicken & a handgun instead of leather whips & cuffs is also a brilliant move, as she greedily devours scenery with vicious, delirious abandon.  Among all its “Eat the Rich” classmates of 2022, Infinity Pool most reminded me of Triangle of Sadness, mostly for how far it pushes its onscreen depravity for darkly comedic, cathartic release – careful to put every possible substance the human body can discharge on full, loving display (except maybe for feces, which might be included in the NC-17 cut; can’t be sure).  Plenty audiences are likely to be turned off by both works for their disregard for subtlety & restraint, but that’s exactly what makes them great.

This film’s poor timing in distribution shouldn’t discount its of-the-moment merits.  Extratextual concerns aside, it’s very funny, upsetting, and reluctant to be neatly categorized or understood (despite its wealth of easy comparison points).  I suspect it will age well, even by time its “Unrated” cut hits VOD in the coming months, since distance from our recent wealth of anti-wealth satires can only do it favors.  It also seems like Cronenberg got to work out something ugly & pathetic he wanted to exorcize from his own psyche here (often through outright self-mockery), which is the exact kind of weirdo personal touch I’m always looking for in art.

-Brandon Ledet

Metropolitan (1990)

One of my very favorite films of 2021 was the jaded, delicately surreal comedy French Exit, which cast Michelle Pfeiffer & Lucas Hedges as idle-rich Manhattanites who sail away to a self-destructive vacation in Paris.  It took all my restraint to not compare the film’s Upper Manhattan wealth-class humor to the teen soap opera Gossip Girl in my review, since I recently caught up with all seven seasons of the show (and counting!) for the first time, and it was my closest pop culture comparison point to that milieu.  A much more apt, highbrow comparison might have been the various films of Whit Stillman, whose work feels like a major influence on the absurdly literary dialogue in French Exit, along with their shared hoity-NYC setting.  Even the characters on Gossip Girl likely would have caught the Stillman influence of French Exit (it’s a very cinephile-friendly show!), but I’m not as cultured as those champagne-sipping high schoolers.  I’m a thirtysomething office drone from Chalmette who gets by on box wine & Union coffee, and I just saw my first proper Whit Stillman movie.

Stillman’s calling card debut, Metropolitan, is a much funnier film than I expected.  Although it’s less surreal, it reminded me a lot of what I loved about the overly affected dialogue in French Exit, and it had me laughing just as hard throughout.  The film is mostly a series of late-night living room “after parties” following debutante balls, where wealthy teenagers on the verge adulthood share cocktails & gossip until dawn in their tuxes & gowns.  They’re essentially sleepover slumber parties, but they’re treated as if they were historic, era-defining salons, where every minor social maneuver is treated as a political, philosophical act.  Characters debate the advantages of Socialism vs. Marxism with the same self-seriousness that they select their escorts for the following night’s dance.  They’re playing at being grown-ups & intellectuals, dressing up in early-90s gala finery and floating hot-take opinions on literature they’ve never read.  And it’s all delivered in a formal, deliberately chosen vocabulary that underlines just how absurd their political parlor games sound to an audience of outsiders.

While my recent viewing habits have me comparing Whit Stillman’s signature style to Gossip Girl & French Exit, it’s much more common (and likely more accurate) to call Metropolitan a 1990s update to Jane Austen’s comedies of manners.  There are plenty of Austen novels that track the overtly political maneuvers of gossip & romantic pairings as they play out in a series of ritualistic parties & dances, often among unmarried youth.  The only other Stillman film I’ve seen to date was even an adaptation of one of those novels: 2016’s Love & FriendshipMetropolitan can easily be understood as a 1:1 update to that exact social battlefield, just with its 90s NYC combatants calling cabs instead of carriages.  Before you have a chance to pat yourself on the back for making that connection independently, characters openly debate the merits of Jane Austen’s fiction onscreen at length – signaling that Stillman knows exactly what he’s doing.  Please forgive me for pointing out that Gossip Girl also had a habit of repeating plots & tropes from well-known works, and then directly citing those titles in-dialogue for the teens taking notes at home.  I even doubt it’s fully a coincidence that both GG & Metropolitan feature a heartbreaking “it girl” heiress named Serena at their center of their respective dramas; Serena van der Woodsen registers as a direct homage to Serena Slocum in retrospect.

French Exit is somewhat of an outlier in the pop culture tryptic I’m framing here, in that it’s about bitter, self-deprecating upper-classers at the end of their ropes, while the preppy youths of Metropolitan & Gossip Girl are adorably full of life despite their pretentious airs.  It still matches the hyper-specific verbal & circumstantial humor of Metropolitan, though, and I find it difficult to convey what makes either film so funny to anyone who isn’t instantly on their shared wavelength.  In both cases, it’s the worst-behaved, most out of touch Manhattanites in the main cast that land all the best, most peculiar zingers: Michelle Pfeiffer as the suicidal, past-her-prime “it girl” in French Exit and Chris Eigeman as the world’s most pretentious cad in Metropolitan.  I cannot convey exactly why Eigeman describing dancing the cha-cha as “no more ridiculous than life itself” or his caddiest rival as “one of the worst guys of modern times” is one of the funniest performances I’ve ever seen onscreen, no more than I can convey why Michelle Pfeiffer sharpening kitchen knives in the dark or describing the nature of dildos as “sad” hit me in the exact same comedic sweet spot.  I’ve already demonstrated to myself that I’ll watch hundreds of hours of a chaotically varied quality soap opera set in this exact wealth class bubble, so of course I’m also a total sucker for the couple instances when Gossip Girl‘s insular, largely frivolous conflicts are played for high art.

-Brandon Ledet

Impetigore (2020)

The Indonesian ghost story Impetigore shocked me, chilled me, and left me guessing where its story was headed until its very last minute. That’s an extremely rare quality to find in a modern horror film, especially one that sticks this close to the tones & conventions of its genre. In an ideal, perfectly-functioning movie industry, Impetigore would be the kind of well-funded horror flick that hits wide theatrical release regularly: handsomely staged, efficiently creepy beyond the traumatizing shock of its imagery, and complicated enough in its mythology that it’s not just a simple morality play. Instead, it’s an international export that premiered to mildly positive reviews at this year’s Sundance before quietly finding its way to streaming on Shudder with little fanfare. Impetigore should be an industry norm. Instead, it’s a minor miracle.

It starts with a concise, conceptually brilliant cold open in which a highway tollbooth employee is stalked and eventually hunted in her glass cuboid prison by a machete-wielding maniac. Before he raises his weapon for the deathblow, the crazed killer complains in a reasonable, weary tone, “We don’t want what your family left behind. Please take it away.” That short-story slasher intro then opens up to a much wider, richer tale of an intergenerational curse. A young, desperate woman treks back to her seemingly well-to-do family’s isolated village, hoping to reclaim any generational wealth she may have left behind when she was whisked away to the big city as a child. It turns out her family’s domineering presence in the village is represented by more than just a large house & a fear-inciting name. It also lingers in the form of a vicious curse that torments & disfigures each new generation of the community, so that whatever exploitative evils they committed in the past continue to haunt the present in an active, malicious cycle.

Reductively speaking, Impetigore offers an on-the-surface metaphor about the persistent evils of communal betrayal & inherited wealth. However, the rules & origins of its ghostly curse mutate & self-complicate often enough that it doesn’t feel lazily considered or over-simplified. That’s rare in a modern horror film, where each plot development is typically expected to hold some metaphorical Meaning in a 1:1 allegory. Impetigore’s relationship with Extreme Gore freak-outs is similarly distinctive in the modern horror landscape – walking a difficult balance of being gradually, severely fucked up without rubbing your face in the grotesque details of its cruelty. This is a film that weaponizes your imagination against you for maximum dread, then somehow exceeds the worst-case-scenario imagery you conjure instead of shying away from the discomfort (often by depicting horrific violence against children in particular, it should be said). It’s also a movie that features several traditional Indonesian puppet shows, just in case you’re not already thoroughly entertained.

I very much wish Impetigore weren’t exceptional, that its handsomely executed but appropriately bleak grotesqueries were just another shock-of-the-day horror. As is, it feels like a role model for how well-funded modern horror should look & operate – offering a glimpse of a better, more fucked-up cinematic landscape. It is exceptional, and it should be celebrated as such.

-Brandon Ledet