Monday 28 January 2013

Touch me, I'm sick: "Antiviral"

Viruses and celebrities. According to Brandon (son of David) Cronenberg's debut feature Antiviral, these - and not cockroaches - are what society will be reduced to at some point in the none-too-distant future. Private clinics will allow the likes of you and I to be injected and infected with whatever comes out of our idols' bodies, the idea being that, if you've got what they've got - whether that be a common cold or cough or, let's say, the Hilton strain of herpes simplex - your life will somehow be the better for it. If sex tapes have gone viral, bringing us closer to the chosen few (whether or not we care to go there), why shouldn't everything else?

Cronenberg's film unfolds in a familiar sci-fi environment: numbed and sterile white, each set's antiseptic walls and floors would seem to be waiting for some bloody transgression or other signs of life. (Even the sky, when we see it, appears drained of all colour.) Our hero is himself a pallid redhead, Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), never too far from a sniffle. An employee at the exclusive Lucas Clinic, Syd has started to take his work home with him, injecting himself with these viruses - copyright-protected, like the formula for celebrity fragrances - and then cloning them for sale on the black market. 

After the apparent death of one of the starlets the clinic represents, Syd, too, soon finds himself a wanted man, a commodity, bundled into the back of a black car with darkened windows by burly security men you probably wouldn't want to cross. These minders may not necessarily be there to protect him, however. We know things are getting bleak when doctor Malcolm McDowell shows up with an armful of celebrity skingrafts, to offer his considered diagnosis: "I'm afraid you've become involved in something sinister..."

In truth, Antiviral functions less as a satisfactory narrative than as a moodpiece, chilling and satirical by turns, which fosters a sickly, creeping ambience. (I can see why a section of the Cannes audience took against it, but that doesn't make it any less effective.) The most persuasive stuff here is going on over Syd's shoulders. TV screens in the clinic's waiting room belch out snatches of gossip, celebrity titbits: there's a feature on one celebrity's "anus ordeal" that leaves us wondering how that o-word has mutated in recent times, and whether eventually any part of the celebrity anatomy will be deemed off-limits.

Cronenberg makes a pretty funny gag out of the fact we never find out what any of these people did to get famous in the first place - there's no music, no movies in this world, and no televisual counter-programming; the only culture we see is that being grown in Petri dishes - and extracts at least one choice irony: the celebrities used to advertise the clinic's services exude surface perfection, but the underlying business model demands they be just as vulnerable to infection as anybody else.

There are occasional visual flourishes - like Syd's vivid fever dreams, which are the closest any Western film has yet come to the sprouting strangeness of those Tetsuo movies - but Cronenberg harvests just as many effects by keeping his camera close to his leading man's vampire-translucent skin, watching the veins there bulge and flicker. It's a chilly film, and almost clinically composed, but within these poised images, Cronenberg always finds a way to bring us back to the body horror his father has rather backed away from of late: the needle puncturing the dermis, the cut to the marrow, the image seared onto the eye. You might understandably choose to hold Antiviral at arm's length, but it's an insinuating debut, to say the least.

Antiviral opens in selected cinemas from Friday, ahead of its DVD release on February 11.

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