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Brandon Cronenberg follows in skin-crawling family tradition with Cannes movie 'Antiviral'

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CANNES, France - You wait years for a new Cronenberg movie at Cannes, and then two come along at once.

Macabre master David Cronenberg's "Cosmopolis" screens at the film festival on Friday — but first off the bat was "Antiviral," the debut feature by his son, Brandon Cronenberg.

A horror-meets-satire take on celebrity culture in which eager fans pay a clinic to infect them with their idols' illnesses, the film is competing in Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar, which focuses on emerging film talents.

Father-son comparisons are inevitable. "Antiviral'''s focus on the messy ways bodies can betray their owners — and its enthusiasm for blood-splattering — recall David Cronenberg films such as "Scanners" and "The Fly."

Brandon says he didn't grow up watching his father's decidedly adult films — apart from the drag-racing movie "Fast Company." Any similarities must have been passed on, appropriately enough, in the blood.

"I don't have enough distance from his work to be influenced by it in the way that I think people usually mean," said the 32-year-old director during an interview on a terrace overlooking the yachts in Cannes' marina. "He's my father, so I think I've been influenced by him that way — we share genes, I grew up around him, we have a very good relationship. As a filmmaker? Maybe being around it, but not as a filmmaker in the usual sense."

"Antiviral" stars Caleb Landry Jones ("X Men: First Class") as a clinic technician who becomes an unwitting guinea pig for celebrity infection, and Sarah Gadon as the star whose illnesses are the company's bestsellers.

In a further Cronenberg crossover, Gadon also appears in "Cosmopolis," and played psychoanalytic spouse Emma Jung in David Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method." (Father and son share a casting director.).

The younger Cronenberg says "Antiviral'''s central idea came to him in a fever dream during a bout of illness.

"I was delirious and was obsessing over the physicality of illness, the fact that there was something in my body and in my cells that had come from someone else's body, and I started to think there was a weird intimacy to that connection," he said. "And afterwards I tried to think of a character who would see a disease that way and I thought: a celebrity-obsessed fan.

"Celebrity culture is completely bodily obsessed — who has the most cellulite, who has fungus feet? Celebrity culture completely fetishizes the body and so I thought the film should also fetishize the body — in a very grotesque way."

Cronenberg said that growing up around movies may have helped nurture his interest in celebrity and given him an insight into "how far removed the cultural construct of the celebrity is from the human being."

Shot in creepy, antiseptic whites and sanguinary reds — "blood is incredibly visible against white," the director said of the esthetic choice — the movie creates a creepy world where fans can not only buy designer viruses but eat "celebrity steak" grown from the cells of A-listers.

It's an extreme idea — but reality may quickly be catching up. This week an auction house sparked outrage for offering to sell a vial of late President Ronald Reagan's blood.

"Someone was telling me they saw Sarah Michelle Gellar on a talk show and she was sick and threatening to maybe infect the entire audience — and everybody stood up and started cheering," Cronenberg said.

"That was when we were halfway through editing, and I thought, we've got to get this film finished or it's going to be obsolete as a satirical work."

Cronenberg says he's toying with several ideas for his next project, which may well reflect some of the fascinations of "Antiviral." But he hopes not to be pigeonholed.

"I'm not trying to specifically just do genre films or whatever this is," he said.

"When you submit to festivals there's usually a list (of categories), and I get phone calls — 'Is this a sci-fi thriller or just a normal thriller?' I'm like, 'Tick what you want, I have no idea.'"


Jill Lawless can be reached at

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