The Lucas Clinic sells manufactured diseases and infections derived from the real life diseases and infections of celebrities. Infections are plucked direct from the celebrity then modified to be less dangerous and non-contagious, and finally packaged for the consumer; it is taking an interest in a famous person’s life to the next extreme, creating a fabricated bond, through disease and decay, from celebrity to average person. An employee of the clinic, Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), is also a consumer of celeb diseases and is perhaps even more infatuated with stars than clients of the clinic. In Antiviral, Syd is assigned to extract the blood of Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), the most famous of the famous, who has recently contracted a mysterious disease. The employee does the extraction, but before the blood can be rendered non-life threatening, he injects himself with a bit of Geist. The celebrity later dies, the world mourns, and Syd must find himself a cure for this incurable disease.
Through a series of encounters and exchanges we learn Lucas Clinic’s competitor purposely infected Geist and they must keep Syd quiet so her life-ending disease can be sold to consumers, at great profit of course. Syd, in exchange for a cure, provides an even more profitable solution for the company – a sort of stem cell Geist that lives forever, can be purposely infected, then that disease extracted and sold to the public. Syd’s world returns to normal and the film ends in a scene where he re-injects himself with a new Geist virus.
In sci-fi cinema three broad storytelling options are possible (among others certainly). The first is the obvious alien story with its myriad manifestations. The second is creating a new world out of pre-existing technology – the real world’s technological advances inspire to create another. For example, technological possibilities in the form of space travel, androids and other artificial intelligence, gaming and virtual reality, etc. The third is what I’ll call cultural sci-fi, where an existing cultural problem or fascination is magnified, exaggerated, and intensified. Antiviral falls into the third category. Celebrity culture, for the 20+ years I can remember in South-Central Ontario, has always been an object of curiosity and/or obsession. We like to know what famous people are up to. Antiviral’s turn in cultural commodities is not far from the world outside the film whereby consumption of news and products brings an illusory closeness and intimacy between celeb and consumer. However, the celebrity phenomenon reached its peak with the death of Princess Diana in 1997 and numerous films and television programs profited from the homicide. And various scandals pop up here and there, usually with female celebrities, and the public takes an interest in them to varying degrees (myself, not so much). So why in 2012 does Brandon Cronenberg feel the need to remind us of our obsession? What possible critique or message do we get from Antiviral? I’m not sure. It resonates with his father’s Videodrome (1983), but lacks the urgency of that film’s critique. That being said, Antiviral does make for a good bit of entertainment.
The title shot plays a bit with Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009), beginning with the same scrawl on the screen and no credits. The employee we are introduced to is probably already infected by various celebrity infections and diseases by the time we find him. His scrawny form, pale look, and long hair make him the most obvious candidate for the role. His ability to play a deteriorating character, decaying slowly as the virus takes hold of him, is simply outstanding. He has no heroic qualities, spending most of the film held up by a cane, and even his moment of grace in which he bargains for a cure, has every bit of ill-intention and self-indulgence that we would see in any of cinema’s most villainous. He wears a black suit and white shirt throughout, in various states of disarray and uncleanliness; sweat and blood stain his costume, face, hands, and in his only act of physical strength – a poorly planned escape from the competitor’s clinic who abducted him to document and film his last days of life for consumers so they can see how Geist similarly perished – his blood and grime streaks the walls and attaches itself to whomever he comes in contact with.
On this point then, the utter sterility of the film, the editors of Cinephile (8.2) are correct to note its power. As one would expect of a clinic, the setting is bare and white – a sterility matching Catherine Breillat’s Romance (1999) where the blasé couple’s apartment aligns with their sex life. When Syd spits up his blood and plasters the walls in red, the white acts as a canvas for bodily fluid. But making similar the interest in celebrity and the clinics where products are purchased, Syd’s home is equally as bland in color. The blurring of work, home, and leisure stand out and echo the late capitalist lived experience.
At times the non-diegetic drone adds to the decrepitude of Syd’s diseased body trying to make its way in the world; at others silence would have been more preferable. Some of the camerawork could have been improved, the sometimes shaky camera getting a little overused these days; but much of the framing of the static shots – again highlighting sterile environments – was eye-pleasing. Transitions between sequences, especially in the second half of the film, were unintentionally disorienting, but this is more a fault of the storytelling than editing. A sense of space and place is slightly confused.
The editors of Cinephile reviewed the film in a recent issue on New Extreme Cinema. I had expected, from the trailer additionally, the film would explore the body in a way that perhaps Marina de Van’s In My Skin (2002) had, or play with some of the other features of the cinema du corps. Antiviral did have some of the abjection of In My Skin, but does not quite reach the quality and disgust inherent to de Van’s feature. Geist and Syd’s bloody lips and spluttering blood did prove to be somewhat disgusting nevertheless. Without the sex and/or sexual violence (not a necessary component surely), and Cronenberg’s film containing a singular act of violence (stabbing a man in the neck with a pen) that is not climactic but a piece of the plot to push ahead the narrative (New Extreme cinema ends with a climactic and surprising violence as a result of the events preceding it), Antiviral does not, in my opinion, earn a place in the recent tendency for cinematic flesh and blood. And if it does, New Extreme cinema has become a useless term, given a breadth that makes it impossible to work with.