There’s a moment in Brandon Cronenberg’s debut feature-length film, Antiviral, when protagonist Sid March (Caleb Landry Jones) explains that celebrities are social and cultural collaborations, not real people. In a film that is obsessed with our own obsession for celebrities, this makes sense: like any massive, accelerated, hyper-visible cultural construct, celebrities are more flattened icons of representation than bodily incarnations of identity. Therein lies the crux of Antiviral: the process of celebrity has accelerated at such a rate that it threatens to disembody us, creating shadow selves that exist regardless of time and place, in a cultural vacuum of consumption.
Antiviral follows Sid as he negotiates a society in which people overtly and constantly consume celebrities, not just in “traditional” ways, through television and print, but literally, too, as people line up outside butchers serving steaks made grown from celebrity cells, or fork over a pretty penny to be infected with the same virus their favourite celebrity currently carries.
Sid becomes the object of intense scrutiny when, though his own addiction, he is infected with the same virus that threatens to kill Hannah Geist, the film’s most fetishized celebrity. As he races to try and figure out what it is that is killing her, all the while avoiding the corporations who would rather keep him sick in an effort to market and sell the virus to millions of others, his addiction spirals out of control and he begins to lose his own body and sense of self.
“I think people become celebrities through repeated imagery,” begins Cronenberg. “Once someone is visible enough, they start to take on a significance. They also become an icon, something recognizable and people feel they have a personal relationship with them.” That Cronenberg actively identifies celebrities as icons is telling: in semiotic theory, notably Charles Pierce’s tripartite model, an icon is a first-order sign, instantly recognizable with a minimum of cultural investment, a flattened (re)presentation of reality. An icon immediately says something and is understandable across most experience, and is most closely tied to that which it represents, but it is also the shallowest. Indexes and symbols, on the other hand, allow for much more interpretive work.
The theme of repetition is prevalent at all times in Antiviral. From the looped video footage of Hannah Geist — “Isn’t she perfect?” breathes Sid. “She’s almost more than perfect,” he says as part of his sales pitch for the Lucas Clinic, a telling thought in how celebrities’ images work to transcend our bodily limitations in the pursuit of perfection — to the constantly flickering television screens on which people seem to solely watch tabloid programming screaming sex scandal after sex scandal, to the ultimately creepy posters of Geist herself looming far larger than life over everyone in every public space, her “more than perfect” eyes glittering, watching, over everyone like some kind of beautiful Big Brother, Antiviral drives home the point that accelerated, endless repetition robs us of our bodily reality.
“I think celebrities are cultural constructs, media constructs,” Cronenberg says. “They’re loosely based on human beings, but they’re fictional characters. A lot of what is reported in the celebrity news world is just made up. A lot of celebrities are sort of deified and we see them by way of media collaboration, I guess. Whereas the human being lives and decays and dies, the celebrity appears 40 years later in a vacuum cleaner commercial.”
Cronenberg alludes to this sense that there is something truer than representation in our own bodies, perhaps hinting at the branch of existentialism that rose to favour in France in the ’80s, following the politics of second wave feminism, that places prominence on the ontogenetic qualities of a body that movies. Philosophers like Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari pose that there are actually two planes of existence: a “molar” one, which is the plane of representation, on which celebrities’ images clearly proliferate, and a “molecular” plane, which is the plane of the body that moves, the moving body, and cannot be contained by narrative (or image, to that extent). Antiviral traffics in this tension, in the disconnect between the represented world of images and the world we experience and create through our own flesh.
“Bodies are supposed to be imperfect,” furthers Cronenberg. “It’s sort of part of the human condition, though that’s cliche. It’s part of our existence as human beings: we tend to strive for permanence and perfection, we want to strive to live forever. The fact that our desires with regards to ourselves are immediately at odds with our realities. We lose perspective if we deny ourselves as animals.
“There are two elements (to celebrity): one, it’s a culture that fetishizes the body, so the film had to fetishize the body. The other aspect was this making explicit the body that culture is trying to ignore. There’s a fetishization, like who has the worst cellulite in celebrity magazines, but to reconnect this uncomfortable human body in the face of this inhuman icon-making deification.”
Indeed, Cronenberg, much like his father’s work before him, has mastered the tools of psychoanalysis, which have informed so much classical film theory. Fetishization and voyeurism are rife throughout Antiviral: not only is does the dystopic technology at the centre of the film — the ability to overtly consume celebrities — suggest an active cutting and compartmentalizing of celebrity bodies, but there are constant flashes of new technologies, too, that are able to see further into (female, always female, according to classical Hollywood narrative, which Antiviral ultimately tries to invert) bodies, to the point where internal sexual organs are on full display. Furthermore, cameras everywhere suggest a culture of voyeurism where everyone can see the celebrities, but they cannot (ostensibly) see back. Of course, a culture of voyeurism bleeds into a culture of surveillance and the erotic power imbalance between the holder of the gaze and the object of the gaze is complicated.
“I think there’s an interesting power dynamic when it comes to voyeurism. The whole scene in Levin’s club is the whole idea that people crave this power dynamic and it feeds voyeurism. If you’re invading people’s lives and mocking them, seeing them at the beach, catching them naked, it’s a position of power — you’re the all-seeing eye,” agrees Cronenberg. “The reality is that you don’t really have power over people, but the more they become significant, the more there is a desire to have this power over them.”
As this desire accelerates, Sid’s body begins to deteriorate from Geist’s unknown virus. Barely even able to hold himself up, he, like a junkie, continues to crave the source of his illness. In his depths, Sid croaks, “I’m approximating myself,” alluding to this tension between identity and desire, suggesting that we can never really be ourselves, not in the presence of such a proliferation of our own images.
“I was thinking about states of being sickly, or not just being sick, but, kind of those moments where we create these characters for ourselves that are fictional in a way. We touch on these things and we need them to function, but, at the same time, they’re not inherent to who we are. It’s still a fiction and still something we create for ourselves.”
Antiviral premiered as part of CIFF and opens October 12.
By Sebastian Buzzalino