One of the big winners at Cannes Film Festival a few months ago was Julianne Moore, who copped Best Actress for her role in David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars. Heaven only knows when, if ever, the film will play here, however. Though widely honored over the years in his native Canada as well as at film festivals worldwide, Cronenberg is not a mainstream pleaser in this country. For instance, with the single exception of The Fly, which nabbed an Oscar for Best Makeup and Hairstyling, he’s been mostly ignored by the Academy — which says more about that organization’s narrow, popular focus than Cronenberg’s artistry. Nonetheless, there’s no denying he’s definitely an acquired taste.
Witness these comments from a British reviewer, in what amounts to a rave evaluation of Maps to the Stars: “David Cronenberg’s new film here at Cannes is a gripping and exquisitely horrible movie about contemporary Hollywood — positively vivisectional in its sadism and scorn. It is twisted, twisty and very far from all the predictable outsider platitudes about celebrity culture.” The biography on IMDb refers to Cronenberg as “the King of Venereal Horror” and “the Baron of Blood.” That’s all true to a degree, but he’s a uniquely cerebral filmmaker as well, sometimes to a fault, as with 2012’s Cosmopolis.
Knowing it may be some time before I can get my Cronenberg fix with Maps to the Stars, I instead checked out Antiviral (2012), the first film by Cronenberg’s son Brandon, to see if the apple fell far from the tree. It did not.
Like so many of the elder Cronenberg’s films, Antiviral is visually and thematically disturbing. In the near future, celebrity obsession has become literally viral, as individuals routinely infect themselves with diseases afflicting the celebrity of their choice. There’s also a huge market for organic food products processed from the cells of the idolized. Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), an employee of a major virus provider, falls prey to the same desires as his customers; their latest rage is Hannah Geist, a gorgeous blonde superstar who’s been felled by a hitherto unknown illness. As competing companies vie with one another for access to the new “bug,” Syd gets a leg up by injecting himself with some of Hannah’s blood. The results are decidedly unsettling.
Not for the squeamish (there are lots of needle punctures and bloody excretions), Antiviral is still anything but a gorefest. In fact, the film is probably too antiseptic for its own good, with the writer/director relying more on style than content to evoke the same kinds of themes his father explored more successfully in movies like The Brood, eXistenZ and Crash.
Brandon Cronenberg’s debut definitely shows genetic links to his father’s impressive output, but the old man still has the edge when it comes to combining intellectual depth with cinematic punch. Antiviral is more of a placebo while we wait for the real stuff in Maps to the Stars.