In the past year there's been no shortage of class-based eat-the-rich satirical content in the mainstream: The Menu, Triangle of Sadness, The White Lotus, and Knives Out: Glass Onion, just to name a few. They’ve come from some of our largest studios (Disney, Netflix, HBO) and seem to be loudly critiquing the ever-growing divide between the ultrawealthy and the rest of us average consumers. I tend to find this sort of content and the surrounding commentary incredibly reductive because: We get it. Rich people suck. They’re all dumb. But these films and shows lead the average American viewer to believe that the filthy rich are actually just idiots who don’t know what they’re doing, and only got to where they’re at now through luck or nepotism. We can all sleep soundly every Sunday night knowing that we’re better than them, and thank God we don’t actually have shit or else we’d all be laughable caricatures too!
I don’t really believe though that these thinly veiled metaphors are why the American consumer has grown to have such a voracious appetite for this type of content. I think they’re so damn popular because they allow the lower 99% of the country to vicariously live these lifestyles.
We all wish that we had what these characters have, which is a freedom from the tyranny of debt, and actually having to care about our relationship to the world. I doubt any millennial liberal would willingly admit that this is the reason why they love consuming these movies and shows so much, myself included. I too like to delude myself into thinking that, more often than not, these works are communicating something deeper about our existence, and that it isn’t as simple as I’ve just outlined. I may be right in thinking this, but I suspect that I am not. This stuff felt fresh and provocative when Parasite lit the moviegoing landscape on fire in 2019, but nothing that’s come in its wake has really added anything new to the conversation.
Enter Brandon Cronenberg’s new film Infinity Pool, a film that I was apprehensive about going into because it appeared to be on the same type of shit. Having caught glimpses of Letterboxd posts and review headlines about the film, it seemed this would certainly be the case--another “insane” and “fucked up” class satire. Now, I know this is a business and that whenever something seemingly new comes along providing a fresh formula to pull in viewers and dollars, it will get replicated to death. But I’m an optimist. It may not seem that way from the incredibly pessimistic disposition this piece is taking off the rip, but I have hope every time that I step out of the bright sunlight into the darkness of a movie theater that I will be confronted by new ideas, new insights about the human condition, insights that I couldn’t have achieved on my own. Infinity Pool justified that optimism. Cronenberg’s film is not really much of an eat-the-rich satire. And sure, there’s a White Lotus-y type setup of upper crust couples at a random foreign beach resort (the country is non-specific and is fictionalized), but this is merely window dressing to pull us in. The rich lifestyles presented in the film never seem to be the subject Cronenberg is truly focused on. Alexander Skarsgard’s James Foster is a joke.
He’s a washed author who has written one completely obscure novel. And after engaging in an off-resort day-out with Mia Goth’s Gabi (a self-proclaimed Foster superfan) and her husband, James accidentally mows down a pedestrian crossing the road in the dark on their way back. This lands James and Em (his partner) in separate holding cells where it is revealed that, by law, James is to be killed by the deceased’s first born son. James can avoid his own demise if he admits responsibility and pays a large fee for the local police to create an exact duplicate of him who will take his place and be killed.
As I sat in bed after coming home from this movie, I remembered being 18. I remembered being in my freshmen dorm room at Detroit Mercy. I remembered lying awake at what must’ve been 4am after watching Melancholia and Enter the Void back-to-back. I remembered those films forcing me to consider that life was essentially just a constant process of getting way too sauced out on
your own bullshit before ultimately realizing that you are nothing. Things seemed simple. This was the only way to attempt to be a good person. This was the only way to not become self-obsessed. We all build a mythology as to who we are through the stories we tell to others and the way we present online, through our image on Instagram or our words on Twitter. But this mythology is just that; it isn’t some truth as to who we are. Once we realize the mythology we’ve built up, I believed that we must then tear it down and start anew.
Now, this ideology isn’t anything new. And I definitely wasn’t the first ignorant 18-year-old to have these thoughts. But I’ve seen this pseudo-buddhist vaguely-eastern religious type of thought continue to grow in popularity over the past decade. It preaches the collective over the individual and places a value on appreciating the transient over the physical. And I still believe that this outlook can be beneficial. It allows one to detach from their physical possessions and not get too low when these things break, or become unobtainable. It can teach you to value the present moment rather than dwelling on your past wrongdoings, or those of others, and ultimately become a more loving and forgiving person. One of the most powerful aspects of film though is that it can push back on a seemingly positive worldview without you even realizing, and without the author of the film even attempting to specifically do that. So, as James goes further down the path of debauchery, chaos, and evil with his cohort of psychopaths, it doesn’t seem to be the sex, crime, or violence that he becomes addicted to. It's the complete decimation of himself. He becomes completely detached from his partner and seemingly his art. There is no need to seek out physical goods, or to hoard cash when he can instead see the person he loathes more than anyone in the world die over and over again. He gets to watch as he fights and begs for his life, only to have it stripped from him every single time. But he never has to actually confront that death. He doesn’t have to experience it literally.
What the film really seems to be doing is attacking this modern understanding of identity and ego destruction. At first, it seems like James has found a new family. All of those he meets who have also committed crimes and had to go through the doubling process in order to avoid death understand him and what he has been through. The day-to-day anxieties of modern life seem to become a joke when you have had the opportunity to literally see yourself be killed. Taking the idea of dissociating from worldly things and your own identity too far can ultimately alienate you from those around you. Done too frequently, that very idea becomes a part of the process of building up one’s sense of self importance, one’s own self obsession. You become blind to it. This is where we find James at the end of the movie. He hasn’t continued home with the rest of the crew as the rainy season sets in on the resort. His partner has left him. And yet he remains, completely lost in self-obsession and disassociation from the very real world around him. This final image crushed me. It was a forewarning of what identity destruction can lead to if we
don’t truly understand ourselves to begin with. James is clearly a lost man. He is in a relationship predicated on his father-in-law’s wealth and his wife’s desire to go against her father’s wishes. They openly cop to this. His chosen vocation as a writer is directionless. There is no follow up novel on the way. He does not know who he is. To destroy yourself when you don’t know who you are to begin with is to destroy what makes us human.
It is easy to get caught up in the heightened nature of this film. Mia Goth gives an incredibly sexy, hilarious, and deranged performance. The sex and violence are so graphic and brutal to the point where they almost become comical at times. But looking beneath that veneer, these images forced me to consider the true value of developing one’s own sense of self; that it is what allows you to actually relate to others and appreciate how beautiful human life really is. There is a balance that can be achieved through an attempt to square these two worldviews; one can both have a strong self-identity, while also realizing that it is fallible and a construction.
The ten films I’m most anticipating in 2023:
1. Master Gardener, Schrader
2. Showing Up, Reichardt
3. Oppenheimer, Nolan
4. Killers of the Flower Moon, Scorcese
5. Eileen, Oldroy
6. Leave the World Behind, Esmail
7. Magic Mike’s Last Dance, Soderbergh
8. Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning - Part I, McQuarrie
9. How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Goldhaber
10. The Killer, Fincher