David Cronenberg is body horror’s acknowledged high muckety-muck, but his comic cyberthriller, eXistenZ, shows him in a relatively benign mind frame. Although scarcely unphilosophical in its implications, this assured riff on virtual-reality games—or rather, that primitive precursor, the motion picture—is
almost buoyant in its creepiness and positively bejeweled in its disgust.
Although hardcore Cronenbergians may find eXistenZ a disappointingly lite rehash of the superbly malignant Videodrome (his last original screenplay), the movie can be enjoyably considered as a self-conscious fiction in the convoluted tradition of Raul Ruiz or Brian De Palma’s Raising Cain. Miramax is releasing eXistenZ through its “genre” division, but it’s far more an art film than Shakespeare in Love—not to mention a wiggier trip than The Matrix (which it might almost be parodying avant la lettre).
Appropriate to a tale of total cinema, eXistenZ opens in a church, where a collection of company flacks are testing their new virtual-reality product, eXistenZ by Antenna, designed by the form’s reigning “goddess,” Allegra Geller (played with witchy gusto by Jennifer Jason Leigh). “Not just a game but an entirely new game system,” she explains; eXistenZ is downloaded directly into its players through the special “bioports” they’ve had inserted at the base of their spines. You know you’re inside Cronenberg’s head when they’re plugged in, via sinuous UmbyCords, to the appropriately nippled piece of pulsating protoplasm called the game pod.
Meanwhile, the so-called real world is being brutally contested. The shy but glamorous Allegra, it develops, is the subject of a fatwa ordered by “realist” fanatics perhaps in the employ of a rival game manufacturer. After one assassination attempt, she is forced to flee for her life in the company of Antenna PR nerd Ted Pikul (Jude Law). Allegra’s straight man in more senses than one, Ted is barely cognizant of the games people play. (When the couple take refuge in a ski lodge, she reminds him that “nobody actually physically skis anymore.”) In order to play eXistenZ with the imperious Allegra, who is seeking refuge inside her game, the apprehensive Ted is subject to an illegal bioport insertion, performed in a back-road gas station by a grinning grease monkey (Willem Dafoe).
As this outrageous scene suggests, eXistenZ is unrelentingly blatant in its sexual entendres. It’s also a virtual anthology of Cronenberg tropes—truly organic biotechnology, the creation and penetration of new bodily orifices, the horror of disease, and the fear of surgery. Outfitted with a fully developed slang, the movie also features several props more than worthy of the various gallery installations which have recently been devoted to Cronenbergiana, most impressively a bone-and-cartilage revolver that fires human teeth.
As in The Matrix, not to mention the novels of Stanislaw Lem and Philip K. Dick (to whom the movie tips its hat), virtual reality is presented as a sort of tawdry hallucinogenic drug. At once run-down and tarted-up, the world of eXistenZ is governed by an unknown conspiracy and populated by actors with heavy Hungarian accents, perhaps because theirs is the only way to pronounce the movie’s title without sounding like a total fool. Some elements are heightened. Both Allegra and Ted start wearing their clothes as though auditioning for a road company of Grease. She gets sexier; he becomes more aggressive and slightly paranoid.
Indeed, Ted’s initial mind-expanding experience occasions some of the funniest lysergic dialogue since Dennis Hopper guru’d Peter Fonda through the gaudy funnyhouse of The Trip. “That was beautiful. I feel just like me,” Ted announces a bit too loudly, before wondering just exactly what might be happening to his real body back at the ski lodge. Allegra’s injunctions against panic and her wonderfully schizoid advice (“It’s your character who said it… Don’t fight it”) culminate in an acid koan worthy of Timothy Leary: “You have to play the game to figure out why you’re playing the game.”
Where Crash was austere and metallic, eXistenZ is a creative compost of barnyard slaughterhouse yuck. The image of a cut UmbyCord spurting blood over Allegra’s high-heeled pumps is only one of the images which have more to do with surrealism than science fiction. The movie’s controlled splatter and inspired puppetry peak when Ted finds himself gutting mutant amphibians on a game-pod factory assembly line. This gloppy slime is echoed by the nearby, woodlands Chinese restaurant offering a squeamish child’s worst nightmare of school-cafeteria chicken chow mein. “Free will is a fantasy in this little world of ours,” Ted complains after ordering the special and then giving in to a “game-urge” so violent it might have been lifted from Camus’s The Stranger. “It’s like real life,” Allegra explains. “There is just enough to make it interesting.”
Like real life as well, Cronenberg’s narrative doesn’t completely add up—although one might wish to replay it to check. Nevertheless, the movie’s mise-en-scène never falters. (According to the filmmaker, the production design is based on video-game simplicity: God is in the details.) The final spiral of plot twists serves to reinforce the notion of aesthetic distance—a gloss on Oscar Wilde’s dictum that only through art can we “shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence.”
Another tricksy Canadian fiction set in an alternate reality—namely late 1970, when, responding to Quebec separatists, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau effectively placed the nation under martial law—Robert Lepage’s third feature, Nô, opens in off-putting schematic mode before running cheerfully amok.
Lepage, Quebec’s best-known experimental theater director, asserts his mastery of time and space by cutting back and forth between a theatrical performance in full-color Osaka, Japan, and a countercultural dump in black-and-white Montreal while offering a barrage of possible perspectives (backstage, onstage, from the audience, and through various cameras, including surveillance). But then, without sacrificing its cerebral premise, Nô—which is adapted from a part of Lepage’s epic theater piece The Seven Streams of the River Ota, a 50th anniversary memorial of Hiroshima—settles into a highly satisfying low comedy.
Free-spirited Sophie (Anne-Marie Cadieux), a Montreal actress playing in a mediocre French Canadian production of a hokey Feydeau bedroom farce at the Osaka World’s Fair, discovers that she’s pregnant and telephones Montreal to inform her lover just as, unbeknownst to her, his would-be terrorist friends stumble in, seeking shelter from the police. The ensuing misunderstandings and increasingly comic parallel action—which involves amorous diplomats, ideological rants, jealous wives, and ticking bombs—unfold in two time zones, even as Sophie’s own behavior oscillates wildly between the passive and the volatile.
Lepage doesn’t stint on walking metaphors (his longtime associate Marie Brassard plays a translator blinded as a child by the bomb that fell on Hiroshima). Still, more than contrasting vision with insight, or East with West, Lepage is rehearsing the familiar ’60s merger of the personal and the political—as brought home in the coda to this deft and unexpectedly economical farce.