Brandon Cronenberg’s feature film debut Antiviral (2012) shows the influence of his father in his choice of subject matter, but the way in which he combines the viral nature of celebrity culture with the more literal biological form of virus comes across very much as his own unique take. (Cronenbergian themes would appear to fit remarkably well with the surface gloss of celebrity culture, as the Soska sisters’ reinvention of David Cronenberg’s Rabid would later graft the source material into the fashion industry.)
Brandon Cronenberg has created a world in which the obsession with celebrity has become literally internalised. People are so desperate to feel a connection with their icons that they are willing to pay to be infected with viruses and other pathogens which have been extracted from celebrities. These biological samples undergo a form of encryption (represented visually by the image manipulation of a distorted face) which prevents them from infecting other members of the public or from being harvested and copied by corporate competitors. Multiple corporations provide these services, each of which has their own portfolio of celebrities under exclusive contract much like modern media agencies. The Lucas Clinic is the most successful, thanks in large part to their contract with Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), the most popular celebrity on the market.
We are introduced to the Lucas Clinic through Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), a combination of salesman and medical technician, who is initially seen eating lunch in his regular spot beneath Hannah Geist’s billboard image, before we are treated to an example of his sales technique. His pitch is built on reinforcing the connection between the client and their chosen celebrity in a process verging on seduction. A film loop of Hannah plays throughout their meeting as Syd talks about her unique attributes and the ways in which the client’s interest in her reveals him to be special, a man of discernment, a true connoisseur. He lays out a selection of products on the table between them, each package distinguished by its distorted facial image. He recommends a particular product – sure, it’s the most expensive one, but it’s clearly the only choice for a client of his calibre. This one is special – a case of herpes. Syd leans in towards the client, their proximity becoming intimate. The sores appeared on the right side of her mouth, just here. Just think, if she’d kissed you, they would have appeared on your left, just… (he reaches forward, fingers not quite brushing the client’s face)… there. Where would you like the injection?
Syd also has a sideline. Upon the client’s departure, he immediately infects himself before returning the biological materials to stock. Once home, he decrypts the extracted samples on a machine stolen from his workplace and sells them to Arvid (Joe Pingue), his contact at Astral Bodies, a business which grows meat from the cells of celebrities for human consumption, sold in a literal meat market with each cut identified by a placard featuring the celebrity’s dazzling smile. Although Syd doesn’t understand the appeal of this aspect of the celebrity marketing, Arvid describes it as a form of communion and shows him some of the samples he’s been cultivating for the higher end restaurant market, splayed across spindles with crossbars like distorted religious symbols.
Asked to take the next viral sample from Hannah Geist after one of his colleagues is found to have been stealing from the company, Syd once again infects himself only to suffer vivid hallucinations of merging with his analysis machine. Waking in a terrible state the next day, he’s shocked to discover that Hannah has died of her illness, kickstarting a chain of events which lead him to encounter the uglier underground elements of this particular form of celebrity exploitation.
Caleb Landry Jones seems to have been born to play seedy characters who are disintegrating morally and physically, making him perfect casting as Syd. Although the role of Hannah Geist initially seems unrewarding, it becomes more complex as the story develops – Sarah Gadon does an excellent job in portraying both the glamorous surface and the person lost underneath. Malcolm McDowell makes a welcome appearance in a small role as Dr Abendroth, Hannah’s personal physician, who has had skin grafts of his favourite celebrities (including Hannah) attached to his inner forearm.
Antiviral is a fascinating and disturbing exploration of celebrity culture through a distorted lens which includes strong elements of body horror, saving its most perverse moment for the final scene. It’s a strong debut from Brandon Cronenberg and I hope to be able to see his follow-up Possessor (2020) when it’s shown at this year’s Monsterfest.