We spend so much time obsessing over celebrity culture. Who’d have imagined just how bad it would get twenty years ago. Staring at women in magazines, zooming in on their thighs and documenting any signs of cellulite or ageing. Plastic surgery is gross but natural ageing is frowned upon in a world that expects clear skin. Reporting in acute detail every time they eat a sandwich or leave the house sans three layers of foundation and concealer. Do you ever feel you know them that intimately? What if we could share their diseases? Would you? Sounds like something David Cronenberg would write a film about in the eighties…. or his descendant would in the 10’s.
Meet Antiviral (2012), Brandon Cronenberg’s directorial debut. I’m just a bit of a D. Cronenberg fan so how excited was I to discover this was a thing. And, I’m happy to say, Antiviral carries all the hallmarks of a good old Cronenberg body horror classic.
In the present day or perhaps the very, very near future, Syd works for a clinic that harvests celebrity diseases and injects them into paying clients. Syd is also, behind closed doors, his own willing participant. He desires celebrity Hannah Geist and every virus in her body, but then, so does everybody else. Unfortunately she contracts a specially ‘designed’, very acidic, bloodthirsty and lethal virus; and Syd in his haste to be closer to her has injected himself with it.
Thematically, it’s clear that white clinics with dentist chairs, disease and women are inextricably linked and part of Cronenberg DNA. We’ve had Rabid (1977); The Brood (1979); Shivers (1975); Dead Ringers (1988); all dealing in some way with disease and women specifically being the carriers of them. Women with trifurcated wombs, external wombs, virus’ that make them sexually ravenous; and phallic objects protruding from their armpits. In Cronenberg’s universe, the female is the natural source of chaos.
The opening image of Antiviral is a man, thermometer in his mouth, stood miserably in front of the enlarged face of a beautiful, flawless woman with rich blood-red lips. Ironic. His obsession with that image of perfection (that doesn’t really exist) ends up being his mode of self-destruction.
This sense of ownership over celebrity or just women in general, is realised to a disturbing extent. The Lucas Clinic is entirely staffed by suited men. A news report in the background of one scene openly discusses Hannah Geist’s anus problems, and talks about ‘the star’s used pantyliner’. A client talks about how she’s deformed and needs designers to make special underwear for her. It may seem an obscene idea here written down, but it’s really not that far from reality. It could be a matter of weeks before we start hearing reports of Jennifer Lawrence’s used pantyliners and I would be sadly unsurprised. Alas for Hannah Geist, she is completely dehumanised in every way because ‘celebrities are not people. They’re group hallucinations’. She is merely this perfect blood-red-lipped-image, submissive and unspoken and this is emphasised explicitly when Syd comes across a computerised version of her that submits to him, asking if he wants to see her body, insisting that she needs him. Later on when in reality she’s bleeding from the mouth (vaginal imagery, my speciality) and vomiting blood, Syd recoils in horror as he’s violently reminded – she’s a human. A woman, actually. And she bleeds. From her mouth and from other places as well. Freud would have a field day.
By the end, Hannah is selvaged in some kind of chemical ‘afterlife’. Her body is reduced to its final stage, a mere system for the disease to inhabit. It’s like a contemporary version of Videodrome‘s ‘long live the new flesh’. Where does the body end and the machine start? The apathetic ‘perspective of the disease’ was always an issue for Cronenberg because disease doesn’t think what it is doing is wrong, it’s just fighting for survival. Humans are irrelevant to the disease. The disease of Antiviral is literally given a face.
My favourite thing about a Cronenberg film is their realisation that all the characters are self-destructing. Humans inherently self-destruct in pursuit of our (probably non-existent) ideals and desires. Antiviral is the story of one guy dreaming about this woman he believes, thanks to extensive reportage online, in newspapers and on tv, that he is somehow close to this woman and rightfully allowed to be. And his punishment for violating her phallically with hypodermic needles, objectifying her and dehumanising her (‘She’s perfect somehow, isn’t she? She’s beyond human’ he insists), is this self-inflicted disease.
I don’t want to put Brandon Cronenberg in a box with his father, despite that fact that his work is so openly reminiscent of the Cronenberg body horror that we all know. But I’m going to. I loved A Dangerous Method (2011) and Cosmopolis (2012), but Antiviral is the contemporary addition to all those classic gory horrors David C. was making in the 70s and 80s. I’m excited. More like this please, Brandon.