Infinity Pool Brandon Cronenberg Alexander Skarsgård

We spoke with Brandon Cronenberg about Infinity Pool, a deranged exploration of failure

Alexander Skarsgård and Mia Goth star in this twisted vacation movie.

Infinity Pool is the third feature film by Brandon Cronenberg and, in some ways, his most daring. In the NC-17 cut, the film features all manners of fluids and appendages. The body, in all its horrific possibilities, is in full display — a shell-like entity that can be cast off and replaced in a mysterious otherworldly ritual. It’s powerful, beautiful and also ephemeral. Dealing with themes of failure and inspiration and the shallow privilege of the hyper-wealthy, Infinity Pool hits deranged but no less grounded impulses and concerns. 

Handsome and long-limbed writer James (Alexander Skarsgård) is staying at a seaside resort with his beautiful wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman). As Infinity Pool opens, against the backdrop of a black screen, we hear the couple talk about their day. He wants to stay in bed and make love, and she doesn’t want to miss the buffet. Em wins the first battle. 

James hasn’t published in years, and his first novel was hardly successful. He coasts on the wealth and patience of Em. It’s unclear whether he writes anymore, though he frames this vacation as the “search for inspiration.” Not long before, he meets the admiring Gabi (Mia Goth), who, along with her architect husband, regularly comes to this mysterious resort in an invented country. She’s a big fan of his work and quickly inserts herself into his routine. 

The spectre of failure and disappointment hang over James. He’s sheepish and not particularly clever; whether that’s part of his nature or the consequence of his insecurity remains unclear. On a day trip outside of the safe walls of the resort, James gets pulled deeper into Gabi’s world, first through a menacing handjob and later through a late-night accident that thrusts him into the hands of the law. The country’s dreamy coast conceals a sinister underside and a low bar for bloodthirsty punishments. 

Speaking with Cult MTL over the phone, Brandon Cronenberg talks about failure, creating the film’s psychedelic effects with cinematographer Karim Hussain and why horror films dealt better with the pandemic than most. 

Justine Smith: Early in the film, one of the characters demonstrates the concept of “failing naturally.” Can you tell us about the origin of this idea?

Brandon Cronenberg: I had a note in my notebook for a while, “a character who fails to use products in infomercials,” just because I’ve always found that ridiculous. This isn’t very thematic, but just in isolation, someone who can’t possibly do sit-ups unless they have some weird things strapped to their legs. It’s so overblown. What is it to be this person who has to seem like they’re failing the simple task for the sake of the infomercial? I’ve wanted to include that in a film. In this case, the main character is deeply insecure about his own failures. So it then became thematic.

JS: A recurring theme in your filmography is this hyper-awareness of the physical body. It even feels like a trap. How does the body itself play into what you’re trying to explore?

Brandon Cronenberg: I don’t necessarily feel it’s a trap. I don’t think there’s a non-physical experience. Whatever physical means, the brain generates this perception of the world we experience. It’s not a duality between physical and non-physical in Infinity Pool. (In the film), there’s this kind of doubling. The question of what makes someone a coherent, continuous entity throughout time interests me. There’s obviously a long tradition of thought experiments that involve doubling and brain transfers, and so on. I was interested in that. There’s also the question of punishment. Social revenge at the core of punishment is framed as corrective or preventative. We often talk in terms of people getting what they deserve. The idea of someone having memories of being guilty — even though they didn’t actually commit the crime, and yet the fact that executing them in this culture would somehow satisfy this dynamic of guilt and punishment — interested me.

Mia Goth and Alexander Skarsgård star in Infinity Pool

JS: You’ve collaborated with cinematographer Karim Hussain for all your feature films. How did you work together to achieve the film’s more experimental, psychedelic sequences?

Brandon Cronenberg: Karim and I spent a lot of time experimenting with different gels, diopters and lights. The entire thing is in-camera practical effects; there’s no CGI in any of those sequences. We’d come in to film with ideas of how to deform the image using practical things. Then we’d start shooting, not with the actors, but with Dan Martin, our makeup effects artist. We’d design and create monster effects. 

Zosia Mackenzie, my production designer, built these incredible mirror boxes. There was one mirror box mirrored on all sides, but one wall was a one-way glass so you could look in without the camera’s reflection being seen. Opposite the camera was a kind of “smart glass.” We had a pinwheel of lights that would spin, and it would hide the rig but show the lights floating in this mirrored space bouncing around. 

After we shoot, we re-photograph the rushes. We would spend 16 hours at a time in Karim’s living room projecting all the footage using his projector and then reshooting it through additional glass, deforming it even more. It left us countless hours of footage that we’d then have to go through with my editor, James Vandewater. It was a completely deranged process because, a lot of the time, we were picking individual frames and building it out frame by frame, almost like stop-motion, figuring out what frames would pair to create different effects. There was also some literal stop motion that Dan and Lee Hardcastle did to supplement.

JS: There’s been discussion over the R and NC-17 versions. Please explain the importance of creating transgressive, boundary-pushing cinema in 2023.

Brandon Cronenberg: One of the best things about art is to be put in a position where you’re not comfortable. Exploring those aspects of your psyche and the human emotional spectrum, (being able) to explore those difficult things, is transformative in a completely healthy way and very much at the essence of art. When I watch a film, I want it to take me off guard. I want it to push me around and force me into difficult places. There’s not only a catharsis in going through that, but we’re healthier for exploring these things. Funnily though, I was reading that horror fans did better in the pandemic in general because we’re so used to images of society crumbling. We’re used to dealing with difficult circumstances. When art disrupts the normal flow and rhythm of your life, the way you see the world, that’s incredibly powerful, healthy and important. It’s certainly not something we should lose. ■

Infinity Pool (directed by Brandon Cronenberg)

Infinity Pool opened in Montreal theatres on Jan. 27, and is streaming now in Canada on Crave.

 For our latest in film and TV, please visit the Film & TV section.