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Manuel de Layet [Film Festival 05.20.12] Canada scifi horror thriller

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How much do you like stars?

I'm not talking about about the shinning balls of fire hung up in the skies, but their physical, terrestrial incarnations. It's a wonderful question when you get down to it. An even more interesting one is "Why? Why do you like stars?". Being in Cannes makes that question pop in my head each and every time I see some poor bloke monkeying about a tree-chained stepladder, waiting in precarious equilibrium for hours at time to be able to get a faraway glimpse of Whatshisname's nostril.

What makes them people tick? Do they perpetuate the souvenir of the aforesaid vision, will they tell their grandchildren that they were there and how the Gods smiled upon them, allowing to see the Messiahs of our time?

How far can this obsession with famous people go? Where will people stop in trying to approach stardom and bask, by proxy, in the life they'll never be able to achieve on their own? This is the central theme of Brandon Cronenberg's ANTIVIRAL.

His answer to all the questions above is bleak.

Imagine a world where this obsession has come to such end that people will actually do anything to get closer to their idols. Gossip magazines and TV shows are some kind of lame when you can actually go to a clinic and get the latest venereal disease of your favourite socialite. Sharing the same pains and itches is an other class of implication of the Fan phenomenon.

Trademarked viral strains, modified and tailored to be non-contagious and cater to the weird needs of the masses, of course brings about a competitive and flourishing network of biological labs. Each with it's own stable of celebrities to choose from. Our hero, Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) works for one of the biggest, selling limited editions of influenza and cohorts to willing and paying customers. He's also smuggling the merchandise through his own blood system to an even more flourishing black market.

His already strenuous life will take a darker turn after a house call. House call, the labs euphemism for “going to the bed of a celebrity and take a sample of virus she caught and wants to sell”. The opportunity to tap the black market before anyone else will make him incubate the latest would-be hit. Hard luck for him it's a killer. In every possible way and he's now caught in a whirlwind of trouble. Being the target of the labs, both established and shady, he'll have to find out the disturbing truth behind this peculiar infection.

From this point the story will unfold into both a violent criticism of the whole Fan psychological dynamics and a financial thriller. Mixed together these two themes crystallise into some of the most desolate form of Noir I had the privilege to see on screen.

Allow me a bit of literary comparison that nagged at me during the whole screening, did you ever come across the name of Matthew Stokoe? If the answer is yes, you'll find an added incentive in my saying that Antiviral reminds me of "High Life", maybe the best Noir ever written and also dealing with the whole Stardom effect. You could argue about the choice of term here, but that central theme of money made out of the suffering and broken hopes of the dejected masses, ever feeding on itself, unending, unbroken, unstoppable, is a cornerstone of many of Noir novel. Visually, Antiviral is more of a Blanc.

Back on topic, more or less, this is not a conventional experience and I feel it shouldn't be discussed in any conventional way. From what I got of the theatre mood during the screening, most people were either steadily disgusted or laughing nervously to quell their uneasiness. It's the first screening I attended during this Festival that didn't get a full round of applause at the end.

The answer to that lukewarm reception is maybe that it's a little too close to home. After all, most of the appeal for cinema is in watching the favoured children of God living on screen the perfect lives we'll never have. In a sense the screen is the reality and we are just mere reflections of it. A distorted Cave allegory in some ways. But what if the screen nagged at us and showed us for the egregious hyenas we are? How a whole industry lives on our need to consume the lives of others through any means possible? Basically the civilised-man version of cannibalism.

That human-old idea that in consuming others we'll acquire their qualities, transubstantiation as the Christians say. In Antiviral it goes deeper than the mere image consumption, the whole “for this summer, wear our celebrity herpes” is indeed the core of the plot, but we see many other ramifications of that trend. What about a butcher? Selling steaks of wat-grown stem-cells of stars for your eating pleasures? Are we still civilised in consuming that lifeless flesh?

This is one of the many questions the screen throw at us. Enough in itself to be disgusted of yourself or of your fellow citizens. You won't be able to see anyone reading a gossip tabloid without flashes of this flesh, grey, dull, and unnatural going down their throat in delight.

Now, to talk a little about the various technicalities, such a semiotic load cannot be expressed without a particular execution, some way to grip and bring the viewer ever closer to the whole naked horror of our own impulses. Bradon's answer to that conundrum is elegant and subtle. Clinical white décor, harsh sodium lighting, extensive use of macro-photography. This giving to everything such a sharply defined presence you can almost touch the very essence of the image. However dirty and nasty it gets you'll want more. Well I did, maybe you'll want to run out of the theatre and take a shower. The outcome is consequence of your own sensibility and tolerance to syringes digging into flesh in medical close-up.

In more ways than one, this movie is like picking at a scab. You know that what's going to lay underneath will be nasty, but you do it anyway.

Oh, and for those of you who were waiting for any form of comparison between father and son, I’ll only say that there was something prophetic in the Videodrome motto. Long live the new flesh.

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schinderberg (10 years ago) Reply

This piece is one of the best write ups on a film I have had the pleasure to read. Thank you.

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