Screens at CIFF: 10/19 & 10/20
Winner of the Gold Hugo in the After Dark Competition
World premiere: 19 May, 2012, Cannes Film Festival

Speaking completely privately, you understand, but if my father was a remarkably famous film director; and if my remarkably famous father was moreover famous primarily for one very specific and relatively uncommon genre of film; if those things were true, and I had set myself to becoming a filmmaker in my own right, the one thing I'm pretty sure I would not ever do is to make a film that straight-up begs to compared to my father's work. But that is not a consideration that seems to have slowed down Brandon Cronenberg, whose father David made his mark and nearly all of his best-regarded films in the queasy, oozing world of body horror, and whose feature directorial debut is something so close to body horror itself that only the specialists would bother with disagreeing. And as it turns out, that debut, Antiviral, is no more than superficially akin to the work of Cronenberg père, and while that superficiality is compelling and distracting, it is still, nonetheless, superficial - and perhaps it was the opportunity to show off just how much he isn't his dad by coming so close and going in such a different direction is part of what drove Brandon to this material in the first place.

Antiviral takes place in what is probably not the future, though it would be easy to assume that it is: but during one television news program, we see in one corner of the screen a reference to the Best of 2011, suggesting rather strongly a first-quarter 2012 setting (rather like Paul Verhoeven, who he resembles in other ways, Cronenberg has a field day hiding significant details in the set design). Here, we find two competing companies in the thriving field of celebrity disease transfusions: companies whose whole entire business model is to harvest viruses from famous people and infect customers with clones of that virus, so that you have, in essence, gotten sick from your favorite celebrity (our protagonist notes during a sales pitch early on that if you have a cold sore positioned just so, it will even be like you kissed said celebrity). This is not even the most disturbing form of pop culture worship that exists in this universe: there's also a seemingly burgeoning market for meat formed out of cloned celebrity muscle cells, designed and filmed for maximal nauseating moistness.

Our companion through this world is Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), a salesperson and disease harvester who, to make money in his off-hours, also smuggles diseased by infecting himself with the purified viruses and synthesising a copyright-free version from his own blood. What he gets out of this is not completely obvious: his apartment has somewhat fewer furnishings than would bring it up to the level of "spartan", and being exposed, constantly, to a whirling cornucopia of minor diseases has left his body a dysfunctional wreck. But this is all nothing compared to what happens on the day he extracts blood from the feverish Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), his company's most valuable exclusive name, and injects some right into his thigh - only to find out, after a particularly harsh day of sickness, that Geist has since died of a completely inscrutable virus that nobody can identify.

There's a hell of a lot going on in Antiviral just from that prΓ©cis, it's obvious that the film functions as both a race-against-time mystery-thriller to find the cure for Geist's strange illness and a satire of celebrity fandom (contemporary celebrity fandom, I almost said; and yet it's been with us for hundreds of years) - and if I may expand on my Verhoeven mention, the Dutch filmmaker is an even better point of comparison for Cronenberg than his own father is, given that Antiviral is, like much of Verhoeven's work, an extremely gruesome genre film hiding a trenchant and by no means subtle social satire, shot through with plenty of loopy black comedy - and the farther into the movie we get, the more disgusting things happen to Syd's and others' bodies, which puts us firmly in the Cronenberg family business.

The director handles this all with real aplomb; and if, at 110 minutes, Antiviral has more than enough time to make all of its points in extremely fine detail and then make some of them a second time just to make sure; and if its satire errs on the side of incredibly obvious; well, it is, when all is said and done, a debut feature, and those are given to a certain amount of stiffness and overstatement.

Besides, there's so much that Cronberg does well - extremely well, even. The effortless way that exposition is teased out, little by little, in a series of context-free dialogues that seem fairly designed to be ever more confusing until suddenly things click in a huge, tremendously gratifying "aha!' moment, is the brave and effective: making the viewer keep alert and do work, but not going out of its way to be obfuscating just for the sake of it. And the hand-off between tones - now it's overblown satire, now it's warped comedy, now a straight-faced thriller - is handled perfectly.

Plus, the film looks beautiful; and it manages to be one of the best arguments in favor of digital cinematography that I've seen in- ever, really. Cinematographer Karim Hussain captures all the severely white faces of Arvinder Grewal's set design in unnervingly clean shots, devoid of a hint of grain or noise, and the terrifying digital sterility of the imagery ties in so nicely with the film's idea of disease as a carefully controlled luxury item. Besides which, the splashes of grotesque nightmare imagery in damp latex are that much more effective for contrasting so harshly with the immaculate visuals of the rest of the film.

Caveats aside, this is simply a damn strong debut: and whether Brandon's career will ever match the scope, influence, and potency David's, is beyond my ability to guess. But the exciting and maybe surprising thing is that, based on where that career is starting, it feels like he very well might.