Brandon Cronenberg admits that he didn’t spend a whole lot of time watching his father’s movies while growing up in Toronto. That’s perfectly understandable given the not-so-kid-friendly content that dominates the distinguished oeuvre of his dad David. In fact, the only one that remotely counts as family viewing is Fast Company, the 1979 car-racing flick that’s unusual for a Cronenberg movie in that it’s entirely free of exploding heads, new bodily orifices and talking typewriters. Sure enough, Brandon watched that one the most.
Even now that Brandon has made his own feature debut with Antiviral — a chilly and stylish slice of science fiction that makes its local première as CIFF’s Black Carpet Gala — he continues to maintain a certain distance from his father’s handiwork. Indeed, he says he hasn’t even seen all of it.
“The thing about his films is that I’m too close to them in a way,” the soft-spoken 32-year-old explains in a recent interview. “I was too close to enjoy them in the way that people normally enjoy films, especially back then. Now that I’m being scrutinized from the perspective of his films, I can watch them and get more out of them, but I don’t have the distance to see them neutrally.”
Understandably, there’s been a lot of talk about paternal links in regards to the two Cronenbergs. In May, they became the first father and son to have features play at the same Cannes film festival, with Antiviral and Cosmopolis both premièring there. For Antiviral to receive such a prestigious spot is an enormous coup for any new director so Brandon regards even being in Cannes as “the craziest thing imaginable.” He describes that first Antiviral screening as “incredible, intense and emotional,” even more so since he was able to share it with his family.
Yet he knows he has arrived on the scene carrying a host of expectations created by his surname. Sure enough, some critics have seen plenty of David’s influence in Antiviral’s satirical tale of an alternate reality where celebrity-obsessed fans can attain “biological communion” with their idols by being infected with the stars’ very own illnesses. Echoes of Shivers and Videodrome are not hard to discern in the film, which stars Caleb Landry Jones as a virus salesman who himself becomes a hot commodity when he secretly acquires the bug that may have just killed a star. (She is played by Sarah Gadon, who provides another link to David due to her memorable appearances in Cosmopolis and A Dangerous Method.)
Regardless of what Brandon Cronenberg did or didn’t inherit as part of his own genetic and creative code, he displays a welcome willingness to use cinema to present ideas and images that are provocative and potentially disturbing. Antiviral is an excellent case in point. The script was born out of a nasty bout of flu while he was in Ryerson’s film school, an experience that got him obsessing over the fact that “I had something in my cells that had come from someone else’s body.” This feeling of “weird intimacy” caused him to wonder what kind of character might see disease in that way, which led to the idea of fans eager to make very deep connections to the celebrities they worship.
From this imaginative petri dish emerged a blackly comic allegory about something that may be innate to humankind: that contradictory impulse to both deify and destroy the people we perceive as our betters. “That desire isn’t exclusively found in celebrity culture,” he notes. “You can look at the saints to see that same obsession. You find old churches in Italy that claim to have the finger bone of whatever saint. It’s definitely connected to an older impulse.”
The ease with which we now create idealized images of ourselves is another key to Antiviral, which revels in the bloodier and more corporeal reality that such images deny. “With our Facebook profile pictures and Photoshopped images, there’s a lot we can do to see ourselves as characters without bodies, as idealized forms,” he says. “But we’re not that — we’re animals, we’re meat, and we’re deteriorating constantly.”
None of this exactly counts as comforting news for viewers. Anyone with an aversion to the sight of needles or copious amounts of blood may also need to steer clear of Antiviral. However, others who have an appreciation for cinematic extremes — a taste that may very well have been cultivated by the films of you know who — will find much to admire, especially if they share its creator’s sick sense of humour.
Says Cronenberg, “I’ve been telling people it’s a romantic comedy and no one believes me.”