The Horror of Liberal Capitalism in Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool

Raphael Kalid
1st May 2023
Following 2020’s excellent Possessor, Brandon Cronenberg continues to uphold the family name as purveyors of concept-driven genre films, equally rich in social subtext as bodily scrunge. This time a satirical, horror sci-fi. The film’s central conceit: rich tourists on an island resort can avoid capital punishment for crimes by paying to have themselves replicated and the doppelganger killed in their place. After a run-in with the law, struggling writer James (Alexander Skarsgård) joins Gaby (Mia Goth) and a group of hedonists who gleefully exploit this legal system having realised that, if you can pay, then everything is permitted.

While the film has been called a satire of the 1%, its stabs cut deepest when directed towards the absurdity of the system which enables them. Li Tolqa’s island government profits off the extra-legal delectation of the ultra-rich at the expense of its indigenous population, compensating the latter with the mere simulacra of justice. In the event of a murder, the victim’s next-of-kin is permitted to ritually disembowel the perpetrator’s double in front of an attendant audience. This public spectacle of retribution enables a cathartic release of ressentiment in a form commensurable with the system’s perpetuation. A symbol is killed but nothing changes in the real. We are told that outside the bounds of the resort’s fenced perimeter the island is strictly conservative. This farce of legality shows that money functions as the only master signifier to whose authority everything bends. International commerce has dissolved the stratifications of tradition and prohibition until ‘everything that is solid melts into air’.

It is hard not to view the island as a synecdochic indictment of liberal capitalism. At once ruled by an incessant profit motive which systematically engenders both inequality and homogeneity, it proffers a frenzied public avowal of tolerance and diversity. The resort papers over the corrosive effects of circulating capital with the simulacra of difference it sells back to its guests: indigenous festival masks available at the gift shop, a restaurant called ‘Yang’s’ offering a Chinese “experience”, the tautologically exotic promise of ‘Indian Bollywood dancing’. In reality, the island is a hermetically sealed world in which nothing escapes capital’s long tendrils. Cronenberg is wise to evoke this totalising tendency by restricting the film’s diegesis; neither James nor the audience are ever let off the island, being thwarted just when it appears that we might. The film’s title corroborates Cronenberg’s intention, denoting a deceptively flat space: the appearance of appearance without transcendence.

Anticipating its predictable reception as an ‘outlandish satire of the super-rich’[1], the film is savvy to acknowledge its participation in the same cathartic media spectacle it critiques. The gaggle of moneyed libertines are delightfully entertaining, not least because of Mia Goth’s deservedly praised performance. Cronenberg knows this; while awaiting a routine execution of their doppelgangers, we are as shocked as they to learn that, having finally gone too far, this time they will be killed for real. But after a flurry of sliced necks the rug pulled out from under the audience’s feet is slipped smoothly back into place; a shot of the viewing gallery reveals that we were watching the doppelgangers all along. The audience is positioned both as islander and tourist, foolishly enjoying the ersatz comeuppance of our antiheroes before re-immersing ourselves in the hedonist fantasy they provide, albeit now with the uncomfortable knowledge that we felt disappointed it was to be cut short so soon. If there is somewhere outside Li Tolqa, we are not there.

But the film’s socio-political moorings are not mere set dressing; the logic of liberal capitalism is central to the film’s horror. Li Tolqa is ruled by a very particular libidinal economy. Whereas past social formations upheld social order by the (historically) ‘paternal’ repression of desire, liberal capitalism is driven by what Slavoj Žižek calls a ‘maternal’ [2] superego whose injunction is ‘enjoy!’ In psychoanalysis, ‘superego’ names a social function which arose in conjunction with egalitarian law. It is the “'unwritten' code” dictating how subjects are to relate to the law and determines their mode of enjoyment [3]. Yet, as Alenka Zupančič argues, today “enjoyment is no longer a hidden support of the law”, rather it has become “one with the law [itself]” [4]. Whereas traditional patriarchal-authoritarian law functioned by prohibition and instilled repression, liberal capitalism engenders consumption by commanding enjoyment.

‘Anticipating its predictable reception as an ‘outlandish satire of the super-rich’, the film is savvy to acknowledge its participation in the same cathartic media spectacle it critiques.’

Infinity Pool dramatizes the nightmarish psychic reality of this superegoic injunction, deliciously embodied by Goth’s Gaby, who pushes James further and further to the limits of bodily sensualism and moral decadence. The horror of the ‘post-modern’ superego is that, as Zupančič explains, it does not allow for any play of transgression”; it is “a law that leaves nothing outside it” [5]. It merely offers “pseudo-liberation” from the law since it cannot be satisfied by mere external activity and instead requires endless internal submission to its demands [6]. Žižek writes that “the obverse paradox of pleasure becoming duty in a ‘permissive’ society” is that “subjects experience the need to ‘have a good time’ […] and, consequently, feel guilty for failing to be happy” [7]. The permissiveness of ‘you may’ is registered as an imperative: ‘you must!’. The dialectical consequence of this imperative of enjoyment is its impossibility, as James eventually learns.

The subversion of ‘paternal’ law by the ‘maternal’ superego is reflected in the film’s gender politics. James is a thoroughly emasculated leading man. His unsuccessful writing career was bought for him by his rich wife, and his pathetically fragile male ego is flattered by Gaby’s meagre praise. The film alerts us to the obscene consequences of this historically new superegoic logic by catching the audience’s desire in its libidinal trappings. Here, genre tropes are used to excellent effect. Sexual tension between James and Gaby, conspicuously aroused with knowing narrative cliche, is almost immediately diffused by a bathetically premature forced hand-job, at which point the film abandons its delicate orchestration of seduction and shows the ultimate in filmic taboos, a phallic ejaculation, deflating the entire patriarchal pantomime of masculinity in a single shot. In a structurally similar move, the initial anticipation of a guilt-laden narrative following the accidental murder of a local, teased by a police arrest eliciting fear of paternal retribution, dissipates as James is completely absolved. He is delivered into a narrative world without consequence, of maternal abyss and hallucinogenic ego death.

Freudian readings are inevitable. But despite its use of the doppelganger archetype the film engenders a conspicuous lack of uncanny (unheimlich), something the BFI’s Adam Nayman picks up on. Nayman argues that from the start James “already carries himself like a clone” and so the film fails to engender any sense of subjectivity or depth to then render alien [8]. In a similarly lukewarm review, David Sims articulates what is sure to be the experience of many: the shocks of the film’s initial half eventually wear thin, and the critique of vapidity starts to look a lot like vapidity itself [9].

I accept both these points, yet I argue that they are precisely what lends the film its critical purchase. The film’s narrative is paralysed by its content. Cronenberg is constrained by what Frederic Jameson would call the ‘ideologemes’ he works with, that is, the symbolic raw material of narrative construction, cultural ideas or fantasies whose use entails pre-given meaning constraints [10]. The film takes the logic of its capitalist fantasy to its end: the essential ambivalence of capital requires that the law be impotent. Thus, the diegetic possibility of any agent being able to curtail the obscene and increasingly senseless repetition of indulgence and transgression is foreclosed, and inevitably the rich are able to return happily from their holidays. In many ways the film reads like a noir with the threat of the law structurally by-passed, like a modded video game, such that James is left at the mercy of the ultimate femme fatale.

James’ ‘flatness’ is thus indicative of the aridity of late capitalism’s psychic landscape, of this social logic which, bereft of alternate ideals, responds to the impasses of desire only with the incessant command to enjoy. We are told that James has been struggling to write his novel due to a lack of inspiration. By remaining on the island with Gaby instead of leaving with his wife, James substitutes a real love relation, indicative of the all imperfections and unending deferrals of desire, for a fantasy of complete enjoyment. At the cost of the minimum of subjectivity he possessed, James gives in to the imaginary wholeness of the pre-subjective child-mother unity staged in the film’s climactic oedipal tableaux. Gaby’s gleeful taunts have reduced James to a petulant child who was spoiling the fun. ‘Melancholic migrant’, ‘unhappy queer’, ‘feminist killjoy’ [11]; to Sara Ahmed’s list of archetypes which function to neutralise social discontent we may add a fourth which implicitly underlies the other three: ‘spoil sport’. This is what it is to be a critic of capitalism today.

1. M. Kermode, ‘Infinity Pool review – Mia Goth electrifies in a nightmarish thriller’, The Guardian (26th March 2023).

2. The gendering of psychoanalytic concepts is reflective of the structural role the sexes have traditionally performed throughout history, such as the mother being the primary care giver. It should not be taken to entail any gender essentialism and either sex can perform either gendered function.

3. S. Žižek, The Metastases of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Woman and Causality, (Verso: 1994), 55

4. A. Zupančič, The Shortest Shadow: Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Two¸ (MIT Press: 2003), 51

5. A. Zupančič, The Shortest Shadow: Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Two¸ (MIT Press: 2003), 50

6. S. Žižek, ‘‘You May!’: Slavoj Žižek writes about the Post-Modern Superego’ in London Review of Books, 21, 6 (1999)

7.  S. Žižek, The Metastases of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Woman and Causality, (Verso: 1994), 55

8. A. Nayman, ‘Infinity Pool: there’s not much on the inside of Brandon Cronenberg’s latest – besides a whole lot of viscera’, Sight and Sound (26th January 2023)

9. D. Sims, Infinity Pool Isn’t Just Another Satire of the Ultra-Wealthy’, The Atlantic (27th January 2023)

10. F. Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, (Cornell University Press: 1981), 76

11. S. Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness, (Duke University Press: 2010)

The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass.