Vague Visages’ Infinity Pool review contains minor spoilers. Brandon Cronenberg’s 2023 movie stars Alexander Skarsgård, Mia Goth and Cleopatra Coleman. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
There are two films in Infinity Pool at odds with each other. The first is another “Eat the rich” gorefest that’s all the rage these days. It is boring and static, this time cut through with a simmering streak of Orientalism; as a trope it’s getting old, and whilst I’m always up for seeing the rich get what’s coming to them, this particular variation is dull and insipid. The second film is far more interesting: Brandon Cronenberg musing on the psychological concept of the doppelgänger, and using it as an in-road into breaking down the conception of the self. One could read it as Cronenberg Jr. wrestling with his daddy issues, his work inevitably compared to his father, David, given that across three features thus far, he has showcased much of the same interests in the wider societal meanings of the flesh and the corpus.
The first film, unfortunately, takes up much of Infinity Pool’s first half. The setting is a tourist resort in Li Tolqa, an imaginary foreign country. The world outside is strictly off-limits to tourists, who are expected to stay on the Resort Strip, with its beaches, discos and “authentic” theme restaurants. The world outside, viewers learn, is dangerous, threatening and strange.
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Infinity Pool follows James and Em Foster (Alexandar Skarsgård and Cleopatra Coleman, respectively), a struggling writer and his rich wife. Their relationship is tired, and James can’t seem to finish his second book. One day at the hotel, he bumps into Gabi (Mia Goth), a self-confessed fan of his first book (perhaps the only one), and her husband Alban (Jalil Lespert).
Spoilers ahoy — the two convince James and Em to sneak out of the resort, but driving back in the night, James runs over a local. Tolqan law requires he be put to the death. However, for a significant sum, he can take advantage of a kink in the law given only to foreigners — the Tolqans will construct a body double, with all the same memories and thoughts (and thus implicit guilt over his crime), and this double will be put to the sword. The experience damages James, but gradually he becomes fascinated by it, drawn by Gabi and Alban into repeated transgressions, in full knowledge of his impunity. James is furthermore introduced to a group of rich folk who habitually holiday on the islands, continually committing crimes and paying for their body doubles.
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The depiction of Li Toqla in Infinity Pool feels strangely Orientalist and Othering, despite the fact that the country doesn’t exist. The Tolqan alphabetic script is based on Georgian. The Tolqan rituals depicted in the film, including the nightmarish masks, have an inspiration in Southeast Asian rituals. One Tolqan custom, enshrined in law, requires that a revenge killing be undertaken by the eldest son of a murdered man — an idea with clear echoes of the Kanun law practiced in rare parts of Albania and some of the neighbouring countries. And if you’re familiar with the landscape, Infinity Pool is clearly shot on the Croatian coast (one of the countries of co-production). The film utilizes the area’s natural beauty and the remnants of its Yugoslav and post-socialist past: the hotel architecture is emblematic of the futuristic and beautiful brutalism popular with Yugoslav-era holiday resorts. The “Toqlan” world outside clearly utilizes dilapidated, abandoned buildings, some possibly untouched since the war of the 90s, with bullet holes still present.
It’s not all that uncommon for modern Western-made films to shoot on location in post-socialist Eastern Europe. Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Hungary and the Czech Republic often offer tax breaks, alongside comparatively cheap but highly skilled production crews. The cities and landscapes are malleable enough that their textures provide a convincing facsimile of a great many types of location, and they can always comfortably play themselves if called upon. In Cronenberg’s film, however, those specific post-socialist textures are used very specifically, and they are simultaneously divorced from their original meaning.
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In recent years, there’s been a trend for cooing over the Spomeniks (monuments) dotted across ex-Yugoslavia: these were memorials to the various incidents across the land’s history, often designed by highly skilled architects and artists who built these incredible pieces. These Spomeniks record and commemorate something important, but in the hands of Vice-like hipsters in search of Communist kitsch, they become something completely divorced and alienated from their original meaning. Infinity Pool essentially does something similar with this landscape, taking its uniqueness and specific textures and enforcing upon it a vague Othering “foreignness”: the supporting cast is a roll call of Croatian and Hungarian actors playing swarthy “ethnics” for the Western imagination.
It does not help that Infinity Pool’s satire of the rich and their interaction with “the locals” is depicted so poorly. One of the narrative threads plays on the fact that the rich here are more barbaric than the locals, but it feels a redundant point when this imaginary place is so thinly sketched. Am I being somewhat defensive given that Infinity Pool depicts a landscape I recognize and love, alongside a people whose language I share? Would I care as much if this had been Russia, Africa, Asia or Latin America? I don’t know, but what I do know is that I would be more comfortable if the film was a bit more confident in its racism and xenophobia, without lapsing into this vague, milquetoast liberalism of not wanting to single out any specific people. Just go ahead and outright depict an actual Balkan people as barbaric and savage, so that I can simply put it to the side and enjoy myself anyway, as I so frequently do when another Scandi-noir flick resorts to the cheap tactic of using Balkan war criminals and mafiosos as their bad guys.
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But what of the other film that exists in Infinity Pool? This is the one in which James loses his sense of self in the doppelgänger, and comes face to face with his own deepest, darkest depravities, a demented, physical re-imagining of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Double (incidentally, Živojin Pavlović’s The Enemy was a masterful adaptation of that same book in 1965 Yugoslavia). This is the film in which James breaks apart from his wife and conjoins with the noticeably more deranged Gabi. Skarsgård and Goth make for a strange onscreen chemistry, with the former performer’s capacity for splitting the difference between menace and melancholic loneliness a fine fit for becoming the latter’s psychotic pixie dream girl, now clearly a contender for this generation’s blood-soaked scream queen.
The process by which the doppelgängers are created in Infinity Pool revolves around a berserk psychedelic process (beautifully produced), but leaves both double and original asleep for awhile, raising the possibility that the original could be swapped in for the double for the execution. This realization seems to sever the originals from their moral and ethical principles, their wealth further isolating, as they reduce themselves to a Lord of the Flies-style clique. A crucial wrinkle appears in the fact that James himself is not a member of the upper classes — his wife is, and when she leaves, he is stranded alone, a plaything of the rich, at the mercy of their financial behest. James gleefully plays along at first, only later coming to terms with his loss of self (and indeed, this is the only part of Infinity Pool where the class satire seems pointed and real).
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This transition is brilliantly and superbly directed by Cronenberg, who fully understands and utilizes the aesthetic and formal tools at his hands. The aforementioned doppelgänger creation scene is a highlight, but another similar psychedelic breakdown at an orgy is similarly poised, bursting with neon, rapid a-cut-a-frame editing and orgasmic, squeegee use of standard genitalia and human fluids, and more nightmarish versions thereof.
Smaller, subtler scenes also display a sure hand at work: an early sex scene is depicted in a similar way to the first doppelgänger execution, with sex and violence aesthetically enmeshed together. A moment of key plot exposition is filmed exclusively in extreme close-ups, an eye or lip filling the entire screen, emphasizing the physical and concrete reality of the corporeal form.
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At its best, Infinity Pool is astounding stuff, and one hopes Cronenberg senior is rightfully proud. But yet it is marred — not entirely, but enough — by a muddy texture at the sides, a failure of imagination and a cheap ethnic exoticism that does not benefit the wider concept. It’s an error of setting and world-building that’s Orientalist and underwritten, which is otherwise a shame in a fine film.
Fedor Tot (@redrightman) is a Yugoslav-born, Wales-raised freelance film critic and editor, specialising in the cinema of the ex-Yugoslav region. Beyond that he also has an interest in film history, particularly in the way film as a business affects and decides the function of film as an art.
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Categories: 2020s, 2023 Film Reviews, 2023 Horror Reviews, Crime, Featured, Horror, Mystery
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