There's something about obsession that forces closeness, a need to be immersed physically as well as emotionally. In more benevolent forms it's the happiness you get from the lingering scent of a lover on your clothes, the possession of trinkets and keepsakes and various items of memory. But obsession is a form of insanity and brings with it varying levels of extremity just as love and hate are themselves so thinly separated. In his debut film Antiviral, Brandon Cronenberg ponders the meaning of that thin separation between obsession as love and obsession as all-consuming hate through the genius conceit of a service that allows customers to gain that ultimate in closeness, an infection from the figures they will almost certainly never come into contact with otherwise.
The major provider of this service and the setting for a good half of the film is The Lucas Clinic, which collects and stores infectious illnesses a wide array of celebrities have picked up over the years. And of those celebrities, Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon) reigns supreme, a sickly, possibly genitally deformed post-modern Marilyn Monroe, imbued with the pasty complexion Victorian romantics coveted in tuberculosis victims.
Geist is the key to the Lucas Clinic's fortune, which is said to be dwindling as other, newer clinics have formed around it, picking up hordes of lesser figures and yet for most of the film she is a literal ghost; a figure stuck in a kind of limbo who nonetheless retains immense power over not just those close to her but to society as a whole. And at the center of that world, straddling the realms of middle class pop culture tourist and trusted confidant, is Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), a technician/salesman for the Lucas Clinic and a smuggler, a sickly beautiful androgynous medical poet and a monstrously mutating hunchback of a future Notre Dame all at once.
Surface interpretations of Antiviral may peg it as strictly a treatise on the state of celebrity culture, a condemnation of how desperate we are to reach out and touch even the most noxious waste of our pop culture gods and goddesses. If that's what you want Antiviral to be, then it can be that, but that's also a disservice to Cronenberg's real achievement here, which is a profoundly honest examination of how much we are defined by obsession itself, with the figures of that obsession essentially secondary to the drive.
Blending the futurist noir of Jonathan Lethem and the techno fetishism of J.G. Ballard, Cronenberg invents a whole new kind of futureshock fiction, where Apple's heavenly sterile white palette is downright terrifying and the breakdown of bodies through disease and open wounds and bruising is a relief. It's a flip of the body horror that Cronenberg's father David made into a signature, a way of both getting outside of that paternal shadow and revealing how divorced from our own insides the collision of obsession and technology has made us.
Alongside cinematographer Karim Hussain and production designer Arvinder Grewal, Cronenberg has created an alien timeline that induces panic and anxiety because subconsciously we realize it's not so alien or farfetched at all. We live in a world where we welcome invasions of privacy on a daily basis, whether in the name of convenience or in the name of staying on top of what every acquaintance we've ever had is up to and although it's easier to target the more visible celebrity culture as what's wrong with society, Cronenberg reveals that to be a passive shuffling of blame.
For Cronenberg, the appeal of celebrities is easy to see, whether they're, as one character puts it, "creations of collective conscious," or something more organic, they are at least living and having experiences. In this particular film, that's depicted through the constant cycle of disease these celebrities appear to be going through, but that's still more life than the main cast displays, trapped as they are in a cycle of constant updating and tinkering with technological devices that bring everyone closer without forcing them to actually directly interact.
Antiviral isn't a perfect film, it suffers at points from pacing and the characters are, by definition, underdeveloped. But in the longstanding history of Canada's Cinema of Loneliness, few films capture the tone of that particular emotion quite so well. Antiviral gains even more power through its technological angle, which manages to feel timeless, no small feat in an era of constant innovation and replacement. The striking imagery and blunt, efficient palette add to that jarring effect of isolation, the lack of bright, non-white color throughout many of the scenes its own kind of commentary on the loneliness of obsession and technological immersion. The end result is a film that one must commit to, allowing it to drown out all other senses and blind us with surgical detail in an attempt to force us to face the meaning of our own growing obsessions.
When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set and functioning as the Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and has contributed to No Tofu Magazine, Performer Magazine, Port City Lights and various other international publications. By which he means Canadian rags you have no reason to know anything about. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon and you can follow him on twitter @Nick_Hanover