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FilmWatch Weekly: ‘Infinity Pool’ zooms in from Sundance; ‘No Bears’ arrives from Iran; and Bill Nighy learns about ‘Living’

Against all odds, censored Iranian master Jafar Panahi creates another captivating concoction of fact and fiction; Brandon Cronenberg's third feature is a shocking indictment of the rich and powerful; and Bill Nighy sparkles in "Living," but it's no "Ikiru."

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Alexander Skarsgård and Mia Goth in "Infinity Pool"
Alexander Skarsgård and Mia Goth in “Infinity Pool

The Sundance Film Festival is currently underway in Park City, Utah. This usually serves, for those not in attendance, as a tantalizing peek at films that typically won’t see the inside of a local cinema for months. One exception this year is the buzzed-about, boundary-pushing dystopia from director Brandon Cronenberg, Infinity Pool. The film had its world premiere on Sunday night and will be opening for general consumption this weekend.

General consumption, however, might not be in the cards, because Cronenberg, of the Toronto Cronenbergs, has served up a rare delicacy: a movie that aims to shock, and actually does. In a good way.

Infinity Pool fits in the recent trend of savage takedowns of the global elite (The Menu, Triangle of Sadness, Succession, The White Lotus, etc.), and it’s easily the most vicious of them. Stories about the rich and powerful often function as statements about how humans behave when moral and legal checks are removed. Spoiler alert: not well. Not well at all.

Although the movie’s set at a gated, hyper-luxurious resort in the Balkans, its protagonist, James Foster (Alexander Skarsgård), is something of an interloper there. He’s a novelist trying to follow up a first book, but spinning his wheels while married to Em (Cleopatra Coleman), the wealthy daughter of his media-mogul publisher. Shortly after the couple’s arrival, they pair up with suspicious hedonists Gabi (Mia Goth) and Alban (Jalil Lespert) and break curfew to spend a drunken day at a nearby beach. On the way back, however, James, while driving, hits and kills a local farmer, a crime that comes with a death sentence (courtesy of the man’s 10-year-old son) in this fictional, savage land.

That’s when things get weird. There’s a local custom whereby tourists can pay a hefty sum to be cloned, and then have the clone take their place at the execution. After James makes the only choice he can, he’s ushered into the world of others who have gone through the same thing, and have realized that, as long as they have enough cash on hand, they are immune from the legal consequences of their actions. And it’s safe to say that these folks didn’t get rich by letting the moral consequences of their actions bug them too much. So they don creepy local masks with disfigured faces and commit murder and mayhem with impunity.

Things get rapidly nasty as James finds himself seduced by this Nietzschean band, most especially Gabi. Mia Goth cements her status as both a genre sex symbol and a committed, captivating actor. Both she and Skarsgård are beautiful people who aren’t afraid to get very ugly. Cronenberg indulges in some impressive barrages of psychedelic, rapid-fire imagery (courtesy of the local hallucinogenic root), and employs graphic brutality to drive home the cruelty of these A-listers’ actions.

Apparently, the version opening in theaters was trimmed from the Sundance cut in order to receive an R rating. Honestly, I didn’t even know that was a thing anymore. But, apart from one specific moment early on, you wouldn’t think anything here has been softened or toned down. (That’s not to say there isn’t a conversation to be had about the politics of film nudity, where Goth’s character bares all, but Skarsgård’s gets framed more strategically.) It’s not the violence or the skin that makes Infinity Pool so upsetting, of course: it’s the realization of what folks will do with all that power.

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But for all the creative bravery demonstrated by the makers of Infinity Pool, they can’t hold a candle to Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi, who currently resides in a Tehran prison waiting to learn if he will be released on bail while awaiting a retrial of his conviction for making “propaganda against the system.”

Panahi’s troubles with Iran’s repressive government are nothing new. For years he’s been prevented from leaving the country or making films within the country, restrictions which lead to the circumstances of his latest film, No Bears.

In typical pseudo-documentary fashion, the film opens with Panahi shacked up in a small, remote village in northern Iran. Just across the nearby Turkish border, his cast and crew are shooting a film about a couple trying to flee Iran, while Panahi directs remotely via video link and cell phone. These clever attempts to evade the government’s prohibitions come with some complications, however, one of which is an unreliable cell signal.

Another is the tempting proximity of that border. It would be easy for the embattled filmmaker to take advantage of the local smuggling operation and leave Iran behind. At one point, fearing he’s walked over the invisible line, he reflexively steps back, whether out of fear of punishment or loyalty to his homeland.

Yet another complication comes about when the camera-addicted Panahi innocently takes a photo of a local man and woman that spurs controversy, since she has been promised to another local man since birth. This subplot proves the most fascinating, as Panahi confronts the existential dangers inherent in capturing images, especially in an unfamiliar social and cultural environment.

Anyone who’s seen Panahi’s other recent films knows what an enigmatic, avuncular presence he is on screen. He’s sort of a cinematic Columbo, saying little but observing much. That such an understated figure, known for movies about children and cars, presents such a threat to the powers that be tells you all you need to know about the power of art.

Oscar nominations, you may have heard, were announced this week, and among the minor surprises was the inclusion of Bill Nighy among the Best Actor candidates for his performance in Living. As luck would have it, Living opens in Portland this week. It’s less fortunate that, other than Nighy’s career-defining performance, the film doesn’t have that much else going on.

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It certainly doesn’t compare to its source material, Akira Kurosawa’s masterful 1952 drama Ikiru. Like that film, it centers on an anonymous civil bureaucrat who decides, upon receiving a terminal diagnosis, to emerge from his Prufrockian shell and try to make a difference in the world.

The film earned another Oscar nomination for Kazuo Ishiguro’s screenplay adaptation of Kurosawa’s film (which itself borrowed from Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich), although Ishiguro doesn’t do much more than transport the story from postwar Tokyo to postwar London. Both are cultures attempting to mold order out of recent, extreme chaos, which makes their protagonists’ rigid adherence to rules more pathetic than malicious.

Rodney Williams (Nighy) is the head of a small parks department, but it’s unlikely he would get along with Leslie Knope. He has no trouble banishing the petition of a local group of housewives for a new park to the slush pile on his desk when it lacks the appropriate stamps. Widowed, his home life consists of brief interactions with his self-centered son and daughter-in-law. Nighy was born to play this sort of dry, unflappable paragon of persnickety procedure, and he conveys both Williams’ dreariness and the barest echo of a fire behind his eyes.

After he’s given mere months to live, he briefly indulges in hedonism before finding it unfulfilling. He develops a relationship of sorts with a bright, carefree ex-office colleague (Aimee Lee Wood of Netflix’s Sex Education), and eventually comes to realize that the road to immortality runs through selfless humanity. If you’ve seen Ikiru, you’ll appreciate the parallels, and if you haven’t, you’ll likely find the whole thing predictable and even a little maudlin. It takes a genius to make a story like this work, and while director Oliver Hermanus is no slouch, he’s also no Akira Kurosawa. (Opens Friday, Jan. 27 at Regal Fox Tower and other area theaters.)

Home viewing pick: Director and film scholar Nina Menkes throws a monkey wrench into the cult of the auteur with her deliberately provocative documentary Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power. Building on the work of theorist Laura Mulvey and other feminist scholars, Menkes sets out to explore how shot construction, as much as story and character, perpetuates the patriarchal paradigm of male subjects and female objects. She doesn’t just resort to well-known and obvious examples of sexism in Hollywood cinema (although there are plenty of those), but tries to show how even beloved films (and some made by women) participate in this almost invisible framework. Sometimes she disregards the context of particular shots within a film in order to lump them into her thesis, but then again that’s kind of her point—even when a filmmaker is trying to comment on the inherent inequality of the male gaze, they usually dip into the same toolbox they’re trying to empty out. (Available on DVD and Blu-ray; also available to rent on various streaming platforms.)

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Vérité Law Company and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.

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