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Film: The Big Picture - The games people play

It's hard to come away from a David Cronenberg movie and not feel that here is a director who missed his true vocation - as a surgeon, perhaps, or a pathologist. No other contemporary director has been so obsessive in his investigation of the body and its capacity for mutation, disease and decay. Yet hand in hand with this preoccupation goes a feeling of dismay - it might even be compassion - for the individual mind, warped by its own frailties, instincts, desires. Cronenberg, who began his career as a horror director, has developed through a sequence of films - The Dead Zone, Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers - into one of the great anatomists of the human condition. It's a condition, as these films tell us, that we shouldn't expect to escape from alive.

Which brings us to eXistenZ, Cronenberg's latest, and notable for being based on the first original screenplay he has written since Videodrome. As an exercise in disorientation it will take some beating. Set sometime in the future, it opens in a church hall where a service seems to be in progress - only it's not a service but a focus group gathered to test- drive a new virtual-reality game called "eXistenZ". Guest of honour is the game's cult designer, Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who's just initiated some eager players into her new creation when an assassin bursts onto the stage wielding a gristle gun. A what? Well, it's a pistol made from bone and gristle, fires human teeth for bullets and is designed to get past any metal detector. Tomorrow's World was never like this.

In the ensuing pandemonium Allegra goes on the lam with a games company trainee, Ted Pikul (Jude Law). It transpires that there's a fatwa out on Allegra, who decides that her best route of escape is through her own game. In order to take Pikul with her she has to get him fitted with a "bioport", a spinal jack through which he can be plugged directly into "eXistenZ". "I have this phobia about my body being penetrated - surgically, I mean", says Pikul, and who wouldn't feel a bit queasy presented with a gas-pump attendant (Willem Dafoe) as your emergency physician? "The one thing you don't wanna do is miss with the stud-finder," muses Dafoe, whose canine rictus of delight gives us the clearest indication so far that all is not as it seems in eXistenZ.

Sure enough, the film spirals deeper through multiple layers of meaning wherein fantasy and reality become indistinguishable. Cronenberg's ludic sensibility takes control as we slip perplexingly between the couple's flight from Allegra's enemies and the twilit, phantasmagoric world of "eXistenZ". The tone of the movie is difficult to judge. As a friend remarked, it's the kind of movie that's almost purpose-built for film critics and enthusiasts to argue over. At first it seems to be a droll prognosis on celebrity. We've turned every other profession into a fetish - why not games designers? Then it evolves into a sort of futuristic sex comedy, with Jude Law in the Woody Allen role of squeamish sexual initiate: you don't need to be a Freudian to discern the visual innuendo of the puckered flesh around the bioport. When Allegra furiously rebukes Pikul - "You neurosurged and blew my pod!" - I was transported right back to Diane Keaton and her Orgasmatron in Sleeper.

There's just one problem with the film's putative status as a comedy. While one may fall to admiring a certain droll intelligence at work, there is hardly anything you could honestly call funny. Cronenberg zooms in on familiar themes of addiction, control, the endless appetite for diversion (at one point we glimpse the box of a game called "Hit by a Car - the Game That Puts You in the Driver's Seat!"), but there's none of the horrid laughter which The Fly or the first half-hour of Dead Ringers provoked. The film's dreamlike state tends to deaden whatever point Cronenberg is trying to make: in a world where nothing is as it seems, where existence is malleable, anything can happen. And when anything can happen, nothing matters. So it is we can watch with perfect equanimity as Pikul, sitting in a Chinese restaurant, assembles a gristle gun from the unappetising contents of his soup and shoots a waiter dead. This is from the same menu of gross-out goo as Cronenberg's Naked Lunch, and it elicits a similar feeling of dislocation. Once any pretence of reality has been jettisoned, it hardly matters if we're locked inside a trip or a mind game: the point is, the experience comes to us at one remove. Pikul and Allegra may be in danger, or they may not. "Are we still in the game?" asks Allegra. Do we care?

Cronenberg could be playing a deeper game, of course. There is a possibility that eXistenZ is actually a satire on narrative itself. At one point, Pikul's conversation with a trout farmer - don't ask - grinds to a halt, and Allegra reminds her companion that he needs to feed his interlocutor a " game line", or else he can't respond. She later remarks that the farmer was "not a well-drawn character. His dialogue was only so-so." This cute bit of metafictional trickery reminds us, in case we had forgotten, that we're watching a film, that we too are willing travellers in the dark. But that's not a thesis which requires such tortuous elaboration. You go to a David Cronenberg film expecting guile, wit, a seductive paranoia. Bioports, micropods, stud-finders - you can get that stuff at home.