Directed and written by David Cronenberg
With Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm and Don McKellar
Distributed by Dimension Films
When I wrote three weeks ago that "the best critique of Hollywood escapism may be a more complex and imaginative fantasy," I was thinking of something like EXISTENZ: a film that takes the surrealist and anarchic undercurrents of more conventional sci-fi blockbusters and runs with them. However, chance has not been kind to it. I suspect that M BUTTERFLY would have better received had it preceded THE CRYING GAME and FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE into theaters, and the release of EXISTENZ a few weeks after THE MATRIX and the Spanish sci-fi thriller OPEN YOUR EYES isn't doing it any favors. While THE MATRIX uses the notion of a computer-generated reality mostly as a pretext for exhilarating stunts and action sequences, OPEN YOUR EYES, which is playing alongside EXISTENZ in the Angelika arthouse multiplexes, treats it as a (highly successful) mechanism for keeping the audience in suspense, as well as a convenient deus ex machina. On the other hand, EXISTENZ deploys it as the vehicle for a dazzling series of games with narrative. It may not rank with Cronenberg's best work, but it's as close to the fabulist visions of Raul Ruiz as any North American filmmaker has come.
EXISTENZ opens in a church where controversial virtual-reality game designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has gathered a group of excited gamers for a preview of her latest opus, eXistenZ. In order to play these games, one must connect a flesh-like pod to a "bioport" in the spinal column via an umblical cord. Once the game begins, a "realist" assassin, a member of a group who see these games' influence as malign, tries to kill her with a gun that uses human teeth as bullets. Chaos ensures, and after the gunman is killed, management trainee Ted Pikul (Jude Law) drives off into the woods with Allegra to protect her. Fearing that her only copy of the game, which is contained in a flesh-like pod, may be damaged, she has to convince Ted, a virtual-reality virgin, to play it with her. He consents, but it leaves them adrift in a word of Chinese boxes and destroys all their connections with consensus reality.
The characters of CRASH incorporated the physical scars and perceptual shifts caused by technology into their own bodies. Their counterparts in EXISTENZ do the same via a much different kind of technology. The game pods themselves are created organically from "mutant amphibians", including a cute li'l 2-headed beast that looks like a cross between a lizard, crab and spider, and at one point, Ted works on an assembly line gutting these creatures. (He also fashions a gun from the remains of a particularly disgusting Chinese dinner.) Pods become infected rather than breaking down, at which point they must be taken to a veterinary surgeon. While cinematographer Peter Suschitzky gives some scenes the grey, metallic tone of CRASH, the production design is far more colorful. Within the game of eXistenZ, bodily fluids ooze as far as the eye can see.
One would have to turn to the porn video BEND OVER, BOYFRIEND to find this many images of straight men being penetrated. When Allegra tries to convince Ted to play with him, he tells her "I have a fear of being penetrated," pausing a few seconds before adding "surgically." The "bioport," which is created by a huge gun, resembles an asshole and even needs to be lubricated before the game plug, which resembles an umbilical chord, can be inserted. The game pods synthesize a pair of breasts and an uncircumcised penis (with a few additional holes), while Allegra often treats her creation maternally.
It would be hard to depict the postmodern notion of our bodies, sexuality and perceptions of the world as social constructions more literally than Cronenberg has. In his films, drugs, disease, technology and art all have the power to create mutations in our minds and bodies. M BUTTERFLY goes so far as to suggests that virtual reality is an oxymoron; its protagonist needs nothing more than his own ignorance and denial to live out a hallucinatory fantasy. Furthermore, our own skins contain a society of at least two: the mind and body, which sometimes operate at cross purposes. I could spend another few paragraphs analyzing the images of sexuality in EXISTENZ, but they add little of substance to the Cronenberg canon's fascination/repulsion with the boundaries between male and female and between homosexuality and heterosexuality. In this regard, CRASH's direct depiction of two men having sex was something of a breakthrough. EXISTENZ thankfully brings a new twist to this fascination: a willingness to play male anxieties about penetration (and visual metaphors for anal sex) for laughs, and of course, a player's need to be penetrated corresponds to our own rapt passivity before the screen.. For once, Cronenberg seems to be having fun with body fluids.
What can one say against a film that has the nerve to contain its own critique? Well, I agree with it. From the very first scene, in which Christopher Eccleston speaks in an odd mid-Atlantic accent, EXISTENZ is plagued by the miscasting of actors with phony accents. Although Jude Law's North American accent sounds OK, Ian Holm and Don McKellar's Slavic accents wouldn't even pass muster in a SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE skit. Little of the dialogue, which could use another draft or two to weed out its clunky reliance on slangy neologisms and wordy explanations, rings true. (I was particularly amused by McKellar's cry "Death to realism! Die, diseased pods!") Once the game of eXistenZ begins, Allegra and Ted themselves often complain about the bad dialogue they're forced to spout, unbelievable scenes which serve only to push the plot forward and bit players' unconvincing accents. Before a scene which promises to be particularly gruesome, Ted insists on pausing the game to prepare himself for it. This witty reflexivity makes the film's flaws go down easier.
As it comes to a close, EXISTENZ appears to turn into a critique of Hollywood escapism and a cautionary tale about the virtualization of reality and folie a deux. (One wonders what those who blame media violence for the Littleton massacre will make of it.) Or does it? I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying that the mysteries of EXISTENZ are never completely resolved. More than any other Cronenberg film, it recalls VIDEODROME, whose ending Olivier Assayas has aptly praised as "a totally abstract and a totally emotional ending, mysterious and obvious at the same time, and so incredibly brave." The ending of EXISTENZ is much safer - although it would still piss off Sid Field - and more predictable, with the final line coming as a particularly cheap shot. I'm not bothered that it resists conventional closure, but I wish this resistance was a little less facile.
Rumor holds that EXISTENZ has tested worse than any Miramax release in years, and I can easily understand why. To put it simply, this is a film for auteurists and cultists only. Since I fit into that category, I'm likely to find it a lot more interesting than the average moviegoer. Cronenberg has apparently stopped drawing on outside sources and started cannibalizing his idées fixes to the point of self-parody. Unless one cares about these ideas (and knows enough about his work to put them in context), his film will seem hopelessly self-absorbed. For all their metaphysical aspirations, both eXistenZ and EXISTENZ are most enjoyable as roller-coaster rides through an psychedelic grid of narrative and identity changes. Obsession does have its rewards.