Antiviral, BFI London Film Festival


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The Independent Culture

This debut from David Cronenberg's son Brandon is a biological nightmare so gruesome and told with such unflinching scrutiny that even viewers of the strongest constitutions may find themselves a little nauseous.

In a dystopia where the hoi polloi inject themselves with celebrities' diseases to feel closer to their idols, close-ups of syringes, gushing blood and nasty ailments, including one particularly revolting mouth sore, abound, and any fans of Brandon's father's work looking for the kind of body horror made famous by films such as Shivers will not be disappointed. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Cronenberg senior should feel very flattered indeed.

Caleb Landry Jones is Syd March, the peakiest-looking lead you will ever see, and an employee of Lucas Clinic, a company with the exclusive rights to the maladies of Hannah Geist. Precisely what Geist is famous for we will never know (and does it matter anyway?). But so great is this culture's obsession with her that Syd has developed a nice little side-line peddling her infections on the black market to a man who, by day, sells celebrity steaks grown from the cells of the star of your choosing.

When Syd injects himself with the latest Geist offering only to find her dead shortly after, things take a turn for the worse. As if life wasn't already intolerable enough, you might think.

An opening shot of Syd's shivering frame against a backdrop of white sets the relentlessly bleak tone that persists throughout the film. White is a big thing here - Syd's own apartment, with not much in it and nothing in the fridge but carefully stocked piles of the the same sandwich and juice, is blindingly white and sterile, like a laboratory. These characters may deal in disease but the rooms they inhabit could hardly be cleaner.

Nonetheless, for all its stylish appearance and headline-grabbing premise, Antiviral feels a tad too hollow to be quite so pleased with itself. Cronenberg tries to engage us with the question of whether Syd is just ambitious or himself a celebrity obsessive. But it's a mystery we end up caring little about.  Celebrity obsession is a fashionable pinata, but it's hard to relate to this world, to these people.

The plot, which develops slowly into a thriller of sorts, feels stretched; indeed this was originally a short film made by Cronenberg Jr called Broken Tulips and one can't help but feel that it ought to have stayed that way.

It's a work that feels technically precise but trying just a little too hard. Still, there is promise here and enough visual flair to warrant us looking forward to Brandon's next outing. Perhaps by then we will have also worked out what to call him.