Luxury holidays don’t come any grislier than the one endured by James (Alexander Skarsgärd), and his wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman) in Brandon Cronenberg’s luridly enjoyable new horror picture, Infinity Pool. James and Em are vacationing in a hotel compound in Li Tolqa, a corrupt and violent tropical state. James is a struggling author with one book to his name. He’s hoping the holiday may cure his writer’s block. His wife is the one with the money. At the resort, they’re befriended by another couple, the flirtatious Gabi (Mia Goth) – who claims to be a fan of James’s work – and her charming but shifty husband Alban (Jalil Lespert). When the two couples venture out of the heavily fortified hotel complex, alcohol, sex and bad driving combine to put James in a very sticky situation.
Cronenberg shares his father David’s fascination with violence, bodily fluids and doppelgängers. As in old Luis Buñuel surrealist satires about wealthy guests at dinner parties that never end, the characters here are trapped in a gilded, nightmarish world they can’t escape. The local authorities have a novel way of dealing with rich tourists who misbehave… they get the victims’ families to execute them. There is a way out, though. Those able to pay “a significant sum” are allowed to create cloned versions of themselves. Wealthy tourists can therefore sit in the public gallery and watch their own deaths.
Skarsgärd gives an intriguing performance as the seemingly buttoned-up and repressed writer who soon reveals his feral, masochistic instincts. Goth, though, is the fulcrum of the movie as Gabi, the provocateur and the main agent of mischief. Her jolly home counties voice belies her ever more subversive and amoral behaviour. Goth plays her with a cheeriness and charm, even at the most grotesque moments.
This is a story without conventional heroes. Cronenberg blurs lines between victims and perpetrators. Its main characters behave in despicable and sometimes cowardly fashion but you feel sorry for them all the same. In its more psychedelic and phantasmagoric moments, the storytelling becomes overwrought. A drug-induced orgy sequence, shot in a blurred and fragmentary fashion, is over the top. The targets of the film’s satire are sometimes hard to identify. Cronenberg isn’t just excoriating the filthy rich, he’s equally trenchant in his portrayal of the local cops and officials. For example, the dour Detective Thresh (Thomas Kretschmann), who takes a very matter-of-fact approach to intimidating the tourists. It’s a job and he is grateful to have it.
The storytelling seems all the more eerie and disorienting because normal life in the holiday resort seems to continue even as some of the guests are being arrested and killed.
An obvious point of reference for Infinity Pool is hit TV series The White Lotus, in which guests at a five-star hotel have similarly disturbing encounters with sex and death. Cronenberg, though, is also influenced by zombie movies, and, one guesses, he must have taken some inspiration from the orgy scenes at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, too. The most pleasurable aspect of the film is its sudden shifts in tone. One moment, the protagonists will be making small talk over dinner. The next, they’ll be putting on masks to rob and assault someone. At times, they seem jaded and very bored. Some old-fashioned sex and violence is one way of passing the time.
Cronenberg shows us his protagonists’ mindless hedonism. They’re oblivious to the suffering in the world outside the hotel gates. All that matters is that they get their kicks. Blood-churning moments are combined with a depth of characterisation you don’t always get in more conventional horror fare. In its morbid and provocative way, the film is often funny but it’s thought-provoking and very creepy too.
Dir: Brandon Cronenberg. Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Mia Goth, Cleopatra Coleman. 18, 118 mins
‘Infinity Pool’ is in cinemas from 24 March