This horrifying 'Infinity Pool' will turn you into a monster
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AISHA HARRIS, HOST:
In the fantastic but terrifying thriller "Infinity Pool," Alexander Skarsgard plays a struggling writer in search of inspiration. While vacationing with his wife on a fancy island resort, they meet a mysterious woman played by Mia Goth. She takes them on a trippy and disturbing journey that leads them far beyond the confines of the hotel. It's directed by Brandon Cronenberg and is part of a recent wave of scary movies that have done impressive business at the box office, and it just may solidify Goth as the current queen of horror. I'm Aisha Harris, and today we're talking about "Infinity Pool" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
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HARRIS: Joining me today is Jordan Crucchiola. She's a writer and producer and the host of the podcast "Feeling Seen" on Maximum Fun. Hi, Jordan. Welcome back.
JORDAN CRUCCHIOLA: Hello. Thank you for having me. I'm thrilled to be here on this specific occasion, truly.
HARRIS: Yes. I actually cannot think of a better person to talk about this with, so...
HARRIS: I'm very excited to talk about this with you. So in "Infinity Pool," Alexander Skarsgard and Cleopatra Coleman play James and Em Foster, a married couple vacationing at a ritzy all-inclusive resort on a fictional island. Now, there's tension between them. He's an author whose only published book is several years behind him, and he's experiencing some serious writer's block. And she's the wealthy daughter of a big-time book publisher and fronts the bills in their relationship. They meet Gabi and Alban Bauer, a couple played by Mia Goth and Jalil Lespert, and that's when things get weird. Gabi and Alban invite them to sneak away for a day trip, despite warnings from the hotel staff to stay within the secure gates of the resort. An unfortunate incident involving a local sets off a horrifying chain of events and a steady descent into violent madness.
"Infinity Pool" is written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg, who previously made the sci-fi horror films "Antiviral" and "Possessor." He's also the son of the legendary body-horror filmmaker David Cronenberg. I caught the NC-17-rated version of it at the Sundance Film Festival this year, but the R-rated version is playing in theaters now. We'll also probably get into some spoilery stuff. So if you are the type of person who hasn't seen it yet and are precious about spoilers, you might want to tune this out and come back when you're ready to listen. So we've said it. You know now.
Jordan, tell me, how do you feel about "Infinity Pool?"
CRUCCHIOLA: I love "Infinity Pool." I walked out of it the first time, was like, oh, that was really good. I really liked that. And then I went and saw it a second time with the sort of surprise behind you and the, like, oh, oh - that kind of behind me the second time, just being able to luxuriate in everything that I knew was coming. I had even more fun, and I loved it. And also, in the second time that I saw it, it was a theater that really embraced the dark comedy. My group was laughing the loudest, but it was a laugh-out-loud, funny experience, especially the second time around. And that - I had even more fun with that. So I was in the bag for this movie the first time after I saw it. The second time I was like, oh, I love this. Yes, yes, this is a blast.
HARRIS: Yeah. I had the pleasure of watching it on my couch (laughter)...
HARRIS: ...During Sundance Film Festival, which is not quite the same experience. But I also loved it and...
HARRIS: ...Was kind of surprised that I was going to be into it. So this is the first Brandon Cronenberg movie I've seen, and I've only seen a handful of his father's movies. When it comes to horror, I'm not too big on body horror, generally. I'm more of the, like, slasher-slash-psychological-thriller type. And this is kind of a mixture of both of those things in the best ways possible. What I really liked about it was the way that it starts off feeling - and this is something that I think a lot of people have noted - there's - I think we're getting this general fatigue around rich people satires and rich people satires that are set on, like, remote locations, which has...
HARRIS: ...Like, really become a thing, whether you're talking about "White Lotus" or "Triangle Of Sadness." Even though I've liked some of those other titles as well, I am starting to feel, OK, this is starting to become a trend that I think...
HARRIS: ...We've maybe exhausted, or we're not finding new ways to do it. But then this turns into much more than that, I think. It's about our artistry and an artist, a writer, trying to reconcile with the fact of not being successful, commercially or creatively from his point of view, and wondering if he is actually good at what he does. And when you think about it as this sort of existential crisis and not just this, like, eat-the-rich satire, I think that, to me, is where it becomes elevated and where it really got me, and I was surprised. And every turn of the way, I had no idea what was going to happen and what was coming next. And...
HARRIS: ...That element of surprise and just not knowing where the story was going was what made this so compelling to me and made it feel, you know - even if you are like, ugh, "White Lotus," it's not "White Lotus." It's very different.
CRUCCHIOLA: Yeah, agreed.
CRUCCHIOLA: And I think what the trappings of, like, a real horror movie allow you to do with that premise that is, like, hey, it's a lot of fun. We love that. Like, there's these programs, "White Lotus," "Triangle" - very enjoyable. Like, everything in sort of that, like, "Parasite" runoff that has happened - lots to love there. Great stuff. What you get to do in horror, though, is be like, listen; let's stop kidding around here. We want to see people die, and we want to see it in messed up ways.
CRUCCHIOLA: It takes out the, like, well, what if we have them say outrageous things, and that makes them crazy and out of touch?
CRUCCHIOLA: And this is like, what if this was a movie about so profoundly humiliating a failson that we will put the trappings around it of the "Triangle Of Sadness," "White Lotus"-y thing - like, the resort itself is like, when you allow yourself to key in to the nature of this resort that, like, creates its experience with, like, multitudes of appropriative of racial tourism, like the very kitschy Chinese restaurant, the Bollywood dancing night.
HARRIS: Ugh. God. Yeah.
CRUCCHIOLA: You just get a pass-by, as someone's leaving the resort, of extremely, stereotypically, offensively rendered Jewish people in, like, Jewish costume. Like, they're not Jewish individuals. They're like, what if we made caricatures of...
CRUCCHIOLA: They linger on that for three seconds, and then it's out of the movie. So, like, they're making the ornaments on the tree, that sort of ambient, money brain-worms you, like, poisons your mind, changes your perception of things. But this movie is about taking this guy who married the daughter of a publishing magnate - which is why his book got published. That book was not very well received, and he hasn't done anything since. And he seems to have the awareness of the truth of the matter, which is that this guy is a hack.
CRUCCHIOLA: And so this movie is like, let's make this man, who has everything going for him 'cause he's the size of a sequoia and he's hot and white...
CRUCCHIOLA: ...Let's watch him stripped down to his absolute parts, existentially and literally, and dehumanize because we like horror cinema.
CRUCCHIOLA: And horror cinema allows us to engage in that kind of spectacle, indulge our own perversions, while being like, it's art, and it's entertainment. So everybody really wins.
HARRIS: Yeah. I love how you sort of describe Alexander Skarsgard because I went into this having heard about it, getting all the buzz at Sundance. So I was like, OK, I need to put this on my watch list. And so I did. But especially when it comes to film festivals, I like to go in knowing as little as possible. So I didn't even know - I knew Cronenberg directed it, but I didn't know who was in the cast. And so when Alexander Skarsgard turned up on screen, it was actually the first time I've ever been able to instantly recognize him in a movie because I always get the Skarsgards and all of those sort of, like, Nordic, white, blond guys who are very conventionally hot, I always get them mixed up.
HARRIS: I think it's partially because he's kind of built a reputation on playing these types of roles now.
CRUCCHIOLA: Yeah, he's really committed to, like - this guy wants to go feral on screen.
HARRIS: Right. So he was in "Passing." He was in "Atlanta," the episode with Zazie Beetz.
CRUCCHIOLA: "The Northman" from earlier last year...
CRUCCHIOLA: ...Where it's just, like, two hours of beast mode.
HARRIS: Exactly. So he's, like, excelled at playing these roles now. So now I can finally kind of pinpoint him when I see him on screen, and I recognize his face. But he's so perfect for this role because, like you said, you want to see him go through terrible things.
HARRIS: And this movie does that. And I guess now we can kind of stop tiptoeing around what the actual, like, premise of the movie is. So spoiler again - final spoiler heading here. So...
HARRIS: ...Basically, the two couples go on a day trip outside of the compound. And on their way back, the Alexander Skarsgard character is driving and hits and kills a local who is walking in the middle of the road. They get picked up. And we learn that when it comes to foreigners or people from outside, when they do things that are bad and-or affect the locals in any way, they're able to sort of, like, pay a fee to get out of being punished.
CRUCCHIOLA: As the police officer says, the deal that we have made with our big tourism push over the past couple years is that we allow foreign visitors this privilege to get their way out of crimes that are punishable by death.
HARRIS: Yes, that fee gives them the chance to double themselves, basically clone themselves, and then, like, watch their clone be punished to death and executed, which is just - what? Yoinks. Like, what is that?
CRUCCHIOLA: I love the part that lets us know, too, because when they find out the nature of this punishment and the police officer says, you'll be watching this afternoon, and Em, his wife goes, oh, no, no, no, no, no, and he goes, I'm afraid that's nonnegotiable. Like, part of the punishment is you pay for this double, you watch it be executed savagely, but you have to stay. It's not...
CRUCCHIOLA: You don't get to opt in and out. Part of this is, like, you will take the memory with you forever of what you've done.
CRUCCHIOLA: I really liked that detail of it, too.
HARRIS: Yeah. But then the twist is, as you keep going, the Alexander Skarsgard character, James, he winds up linking up with the Mia Goth character and all of her band of crazy, hedonistic friends who actually manipulate this get-out-of-jail-free card in a way. They cause chaos...
HARRIS: ...And wreak havoc and kill people and ruin things. And each time, they just clone themselves again, and then they watch themselves because they get a kick out of it.
CRUCCHIOLA: Yeah, they're chaos junkies at this point.
HARRIS: Yeah. And so I think, again, that is what sort of elevates this beyond, you know, your "Triangle Of Sadness," "The Menu," those sorts of things because it's not just about watching these people get punished, but it's also about the fact that they are watching themselves. Like, there's this very sort of my body and this literal doubling and, like, seeing yourself and what that does to you and what that does to your brain. And at one point, James' wife says to him, you know, like, it's really disgusting you can just sit there and let it - watch it happen like a robot. And it's like, they are sadistic in many ways. And I love that it really taps into that sadism. And it's just really visual and weird in unpleasant ways.
CRUCCHIOLA: Well, when he meets the hedonists, he gets posed that question - like, do you ever worry, James, that they got the wrong man? And he's just trying to kind of get through this weird situation as he settles into it, meeting these people who have all gone through the same experience. And they're all blindingly rich. He's a coattail hanger-on-er (ph). Like, he's writing his wife's checks. These people have their own money.
CRUCCHIOLA: And he - when he says, you know, do you ever worry they got the wrong man, he goes, I can only hope. And he's trying to do it to, like, deflect, like there's humor there, but I feel like it's a foundational point of his entire character that this man so, like, doubts himself and so knows the reality of his incompetencies and insufficiencies that the notion of watching his other self die - and perhaps that failure, with the whole life behind him that is kind of a waste and that is just, like, riding on a woman's money, like, we can only hope that maybe I am the clean slate, and maybe I can do better than the person that, like, formed me, but, like, leave that failing behind. And...
CRUCCHIOLA: ...Watching him, over the course of the movie, go more and more and more extreme - as Mia tells him at one point, it's like a new skin working into place when you kind of first experience this doubling procedure. Like, he's trying to find who James is and prove James is something stronger and more fortified than he was, at the cost of the fact that he is pretty much totally wrong, and he is totally out of his depth with these people.
HARRIS: My question was, were we also, in a way, supposed to take this as a literal thing? And I was wondering, is this sort of a "Twilight Zone"-y thing, where, actually, maybe he's his clone and then that is him? Maybe this is just where my brain goes. But each time it happened, I was like, oh, wait - what if we're actually not seeing the original James, and now we're just...
HARRIS: ...Seeing the double James?
CRUCCHIOLA: Yeah, 'cause a key part of the doubling process is you take the whole thing.
CRUCCHIOLA: It's your memories. It's - essentially, it's an exact copy in totality. So it's not just the husk. And so we can't know. And I've wondered about that and have had no interest in the answer because I'm like, what if? What if he's the third version of himself? What if we're meeting Gabi No. 12?
HARRIS: Right. Does it matter?
CRUCCHIOLA: Like, they've been coming here for years.
CRUCCHIOLA: And it's watching the process of someone reconciling whether or not they care that they've essentially been killing themselves for years and that, for these sad little rich people, bored little rich people, that that's their primary form of entertainment, that they come here every year for that in order to participate in the rituals of their own executions.
HARRIS: Right. And it also just seems like a very sharp critique on just the idea of accountability and whether or not that's actually a thing that can happen to rich people, like, because clearly...
HARRIS: ...If the Mia Goth character and all of their friends have been coming for years, they keep letting them back on this island.
HARRIS: (Laughter) And it's like...
CRUCCHIOLA: I had expectations because I absolutely love Mia Goth, and I think she is one of the great actors working of our age, and she's so talented. With Brandon Cronenberg, I loved "Antiviral." And "Possessor," I was like, this is very interesting and looks cool, and I respect it, but it didn't really emotionally catch for me. And then this movie ended up, I think, melding the visual panache that Brandon refined more in "Possessor" and then takes those themes of, like, idolatry and beauty and identity and the way that the worshipped class gets very strange permissions in this world that, like, the normies out there buy into and even aspire to. And blending those concepts from those two movies and coming into this, I felt like - I was like, this is the Brandon Cronenberg that is super for me.
So I was really excited to watch him melding, like, my thematic interests with my visual interests and coming out the other side with this beautiful little package. And perfect casting, even - Cleopatra Coleman is sparingly used in this movie but is just kind of perfect whenever she pops up. You're like, man, I get it, Em. Like, I hear it. I hear where you're coming - I'm with you, Em.
HARRIS: (Laughter) Absolutely, absolutely. And we can't talk about this without talking about Mia Goth. Like, I've seen her in a couple of things, but I haven't seen her most recent spate of films. I know. I need to catch up with "Pearl" and "X." Yes, yes, yes, but...
CRUCCHIOLA: Hey, there's a lot out there.
HARRIS: I know. I know. I saw "Suspiria." I saw her in "Nymphomaniac."
HARRIS: But, like, what is it about her that has just made her this sort of perfect - I called her the queen of horror at the beginning of this conversation, and I think that seems apt right now. She just has - part of it, I think, is her face is just so expressive.
CRUCCHIOLA: That face and voice are undeniable. Like...
CRUCCHIOLA: ...Yes, everybody, that is her voice. And I think it's good that you say that, like, I've seen "Nymphomaniac." That was, I believe, her first or second feature film.
CRUCCHIOLA: So she's, like, about 19 or 20. And she steps in, coming from fashion, and is like, I am going to make a Lars von Trier movie.
CRUCCHIOLA: And she really establishes herself, I think, at the outset of, like - you're going to see this, like, strange, gorgeous creature that you're not really going to know what to do with, and she will destabilize you sort of intrinsically in these parts that she's taking. And she takes roles that are very specific. So I think she's cemented such a reputation as such an incredible performer and has such a specific look.
I asked her about this in a Q&A that was like, I think you give performances, oftentimes, like, taking into the batch, like, the explosion of her persona through "X" and "Pearl" and, like, knowing that "MaXXXine" is coming, that's going to be a whole Mia trilogy, and now, "Infinity Pool" - like, this is her carrying movies. And I was like, you give performances that I think a lot of people would instinctually call fearless, a fearless performance. I was like, but I don't actually know you, so I don't know if you're terrified up there, and this is just, like, what you summon out of that terror. And she was like, it's in my daily life that I actually feel more scared and, like, more beholden to, like, what people expect of me and things that I'm supposed to do. She's like, but when I'm on screen - she's like, my whole thing is I take characters that I can just get totally lost in, and I lose track of where the camera is. And she didn't sound, like, method-y, like she won't stop being Gabi on set kind of thing.
HARRIS: Right, right.
CRUCCHIOLA: But, like, I truly think she only plays characters that she can utterly lose herself into, to the point where her capacity for the mania and aggression that she can achieve, there is no roadblock for Mia, once she is in a character, to going to either greater depths or higher heights than I think most other people are capable of 'cause there is an unselfconscious cruelty and madness and ferocity about her that comes in the most, like, ghost-of-a-Victorian-child packaging.
HARRIS: Yes, yeah.
CRUCCHIOLA: And I say this as somebody with a "Pearl" one-sheet on my wall right now.
CRUCCHIOLA: Like, the Mia Goth era that we're in - I love knowing that I don't think this kind of exposure will affect the choices that Mia Goth makes at all. It might mean she gets more scripts landing in her lap, but I don't think it means that a part Mia never considered taking before, that she's going to take now because she knows her lane.
HARRIS: Yeah. Yeah. And I think that's such an important thing to value in a performer like that because there is a - often, a model-to-actress pipeline that can sometimes look like, oh, I'm just going to take whatever roles come my way. And I think the fact that she, like you said, just takes really interesting roles - I think as the movie goes on, she gets weirder and weirder and strange, and there's a scene involving breastfeeding and...
CRUCCHIOLA: (Laughter) Sure is.
HARRIS: It's like - it's wild. But I think when I really sort of latched in was during the early scene when they're at the dinner, the two couples are at dinner, and she's talking about her career and how she's...
CRUCCHIOLA: Oh - Aisha, oh, my God.
HARRIS: Yes. She's like, I have perfected the art of failing naturally. And so she's the woman in the commercials that's like, oh, I can't open this jar. I'm having such trouble. And she demonstrates it at the table. And - (laughter).
CRUCCHIOLA: She's the person who simply doesn't know how to use a blanket, so she needs a Snuggie.
HARRIS: (Laughter) I know. It's just - I think that is just - for me, it really just made me latch into that character and really understand how weird and oddball and uncomfortable that - 'cause can you imagine if you were actually at the dinner table with someone who was explaining that to you? I don't know how I would react.
CRUCCHIOLA: I would turn into a fire engine. I would be so red.
CRUCCHIOLA: My core temperature would be 110 degrees. And she said, too, that that was the first scene that they shot, actually, for the movie. And she made it a point of not meeting, really, Alexander leading up to that point 'cause she wanted to go in totally cold as best she can, for that to be his first interaction with her. So when she started doing that and started, like, getting into that bit, it was really, like, oh, I'm really figuring out who Gabi is for the first time with sort of no pretext of Mia. And it set everything kind of on that, like, destabilizing foot.
HARRIS: Yeah. Yeah.
CRUCCHIOLA: I think most really hot people are scared to, like, genuinely un-hot themselves. I'm talking about Heidi Klum going as, like, a 9-foot worm for Halloween.
CRUCCHIOLA: Like, sincerely un-hotting themselves. And Alexander Skarsgard crawling around on the floor at his own premieres, wearing a leash and collar, and Mia Goth willing to be, like - talk about, like, the definition of, like, an unlikable woman - like, the willingness of these two actors who cut a very specific figure of beauty, delighting, seemingly, in diving into roles like this - I appreciate when people who are famously hot - like Eric Northman, vampire sex God. Like, that's how you met him. That's how you know him, from "True Blood." I like it when they're like, no, I'm not going to reject my hotness. Like, my career isn't a reaction to it. But I really want to have fun with, like, I think I know how hot you see me as being, so I'm going to take advantage of, like, all those permissions and clearances that you give me, and I'm going to leverage the parts I have off my persona to, like, have that much more fun with them. And I love it when an actor dives in like that.
CRUCCHIOLA: And I like it when people give you the extra little layer. It's a nice little treat.
HARRIS: Yeah. When you were describing Mia Goth and her sort of path, it made me think about Doja Cat...
CRUCCHIOLA: Oh, yeah.
HARRIS: ...And the way that she has completely rejected the sort of heteronormative - look at how hot I am. And she's just weird. She shaved her eyebrows.
HARRIS: She's constantly contorting her face and doing makeup that is just the opposite of what is considered conventionally hot. I mean, we know she's beautiful.
CRUCCHIOLA: We know it.
HARRIS: She's gorgeous. But she actively rejects that. And it's just like - she shaved her head - like, she is just weird in ways that I think it's great to be able to see, especially younger performers, really embrace and sort of just say, I'm not going to play that game.
CRUCCHIOLA: I totally agree.
HARRIS: And I'm just going to not do that. So I didn't think I'd be talking about Doja Cat...
HARRIS: ...While talking about a Brandon Cronenberg movie, but I could actually now imagine Doja Cat being in a Brandon Cronenberg movie. So who knows.
CRUCCHIOLA: Like, she could show up in that incredibly bejeweled, bedazzled head-to-toe look where she was just, like, glued in crystals and bright red. She could show up as that in a Brandon Cronenberg movie, and it would make sense.
HARRIS: Yes. So let's make that happen, actually. I will be first in line for that one.
CRUCCHIOLA: Me, too.
HARRIS: So this movie is weird.
HARRIS: And we loved it. And I hope people get a chance to see it. And again, don't assume it's just an eat-the-rich thing because it's so much more than that.
CRUCCHIOLA: Absolutely is.
HARRIS: It's just amazing. We loved it.
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HARRIS: Well, we want to know what you think about "Infinity Pool." Let us know if you enjoyed it, if you had to close your eyes, if it made you a little sick to your stomach. There's some moments there I was a little - ah (laughter). But find us at facebook.com/pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Jordan Crucchiola, this was so much fun. Thank you for being here.
CRUCCHIOLA: Thank you for having me. I love talking about this movie with people. I love getting their thoughts on it and bouncing back and forth. So this was a real honor. Thank you.
HARRIS: Ah, yes. And this episode was produced by Mike Katzif and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides our theme music. Thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Aisha Harris. And we'll see you all tomorrow when we'll be talking about a very different movie - "80 For Brady."
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