The idea of Brandon Cronenberg’s new movie sounds outlandish, but recent events suggest otherwise.
At the heart of Antiviral is the notion that in the near future fans will become so rabid they’ll actually pay to be infected by celebrity diseases to feel closer to their idols. Sounds strange, but consider the statue containing John Lennon’s DNA (courtesy of a Beatle molar bought at auction) by artist Kirsten Zuk or the $40,668 paid for a lock of Justin Bieber’s hair.
“I always thought it was kind of plausible,” he says. “A friend of mine, while I was shooting, pointed me in the direction of this YouTube video that was Sarah Michelle Gellar on Jimmy Kimmel Live.
“At one point she says, ‘I don’t want to sing because I have a cold, I don’t want to get the audience sick,’ and everyone started applauding like crazy. I’m sure one person in that audience would want Sarah Michelle Gellar’s cold. It’s certainly meant to be satirical and a cultural caricature but I think it is not that far from what already exists.”
When I tell the son of famous director David Cronenberg about the Lennon DNA statue he says: “It’s very interesting to me how obsessed people are with the physical tokens, the fetishes. John Lennon’s teeth… It’s so incredibly religious. It’s like going into some church that claims to have the finger bone of some saint.”
The idea for the film didn’t come from an analytical look at celebrity culture, however. The concept occurred to him as he was laid low by the flu.
“I was obsessing over the physicality of illness and how I had this thing, physically in my body, in my cells,” he said, “that had come from someone else’s body and how there was a weird intimacy to that connection. After I got better I was trying to think of a character who might be able to see disease in that way and I was struck by the idea that a celebrity obsessed fan might want that kind of intimacy and it developed into an interesting metaphor.”
These days Cronenberg’s life is imitating his art to a degree as the film makes the festival rounds — it’s played at Cannes and Toronto—and the spotlight has been turned on him. “It’s sort of like being a character in my own film,” he says of the attention.
Brandon Cronenberg is a new filmmaker with a famous last name. While he may have taken the celebrated Cronenberg family fascination with body horror to a genetic level in “Antiviral,” he also proves himself to be an exciting new voice in dark cinema.
“Antiviral” is the story of Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), a technician at Lucas Clinic, a lab that sells celebrity diseases to obsessed fans. For a price devotees of Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon) and others can become infected with actual cells from their idols. Herpes, skin flaps, the flu. You name it. Syd also supplies an underground market by smuggling copyrighted viruses out of the clinic in his own body. Soon, however, his bug bootlegging catches up with him when he ingests a deadly disease.
“Antiviral” works both as speculative fiction and satire.
Cronenberg creates a strange world that looks much like ours, but exists only in his imagination… for now. It’s a fame-obsessed world where celebrity operations are top news stories and people know the intimate details of their favorite star’s lives. It’s taken to extremes, but just to the other side of extreme. “Celebrities are not people,” the movie tells us, “they are mass hallucinations.” Tellingly we’re never told why the movie’s celebrities are famous, we’re just meant to accept that they are; that the hallucination of fame is enough. Rings true today. Just ask Kim Kardashian.
Satire blends with horror to create some of the film’s lasting images. There’s a butcher shop that literally feeds the public’s need to consume their favorite stars. The Sweeney Todd-esque butcher even has a celebrity cell garden where he grows “celebrity cell steaks.” Imagine a New and Improved Soylent Green with 50% More Celebrity! There are some grotesque images blended into these sequences, but the most horrifying is its plausibility; that this reflects our increasingly rabid celebrity culture, just tilted 180 degrees.
There is a cold, clinical feel to “Antiviral,” that recalls Cronenberg senior. It is, I guess, Brandon’s birthright, but it occasionally obscures the more humorous aspects of the story—celebrity ringworm for your dog, anyone?
“Antiviral” is strange speculative fiction, but it proves one thing—the apple doesn’t fall far form the tree, in either subject matter or filmmaking talent.