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  • Taboos, transgression and the inheritance of horror

Editor's choice

Taboos, transgression and the inheritance of horror

In three new movies, Darren Aronofsky, Ulrich Seidl and Brandon Cronenberg explore uncomfortable truths.

The Whale – Darren Aronofsky

Darren Aronofsky’s back with all the melodramatics, squabbles and points of contention. That is to say: Darren Aronofsky is back.

A singular director with a penchant for putting the cat among the pigeons, his canon is scattered with mishaps, melancholia and the odd masterpiece. With a knack for catalysing conversations, the middle ground is not familiar terrain for Aronofsky. For the most part, it is like it or lump it. But his latest work, The Whale, is bang average. Welcome to the middle ground, Darren.

A single-room cinematic, the film centres on morbidly obese English teacher Charlie (who tells his online students that his webcam is broken, an excuse which allows him to hide his appearance). Somewhat claustrophobically, the majority of the runtime is spent watching Charlie literally eat himself to death and struggle with the minutest of tasks. The gravity of the situation is brought into sharp relief after a visit from his estranged and troubled teenage daughter.

The Whale is bang average. Welcome to the middle ground, Darren.

Clad in a fatsuit, Oscar frontrunner Brendan Fraser takes on the lead performance and ultimately gives the role scores of humanity and compassion. The actual elephant in the room isn’t Charlie though: the only fat that needs to be trimmed comes from the writing – a hammy, vapid and contrived script.

Paired with a mismatched score that completely undercuts the fragile sentimentalism of its protagonist, the film is a pretty convoluted and clunky experience. Samantha Morton puts in a solid twenty minutes as Charlie’s ex-wife, but even she can’t save him, or the film from itself. Aronofsky’s Whale is more of a turkey: unnecessarily leaning into the grotesque with misplaced empathy.

The central Moby Dick conceit – that he sees himself as The Whale – is rammed down our throats with capital ‘E’ exposition as he reads a cherished essay on Melville throughout the film, treating literature with a cheesy bluntness (the whole thing feels a bit naff, like a hamstrung Dead Poets Society). All told, though, it’s worth the watch for the acting alone. Or rather, worth the watch for the acting only.

Sparta – Ulrich Seidl

Another filmmaker who is no stranger to controversy is Ulrich Seidl. A hardcore purveyor of the underbelly when it comes to shining a light on the darkest reaches of the ol’ human condition, few directors can hold a candle to Seidl’s work.

Ulrich Seidl dares to tackle the taboo, looking the subject of paedophilia straight in the eyes

A companion piece to the masterful Rimini (2022), his latest work, Sparta, is a challenging piece that arrived headlong in scandal – not for its theme of paedophilia but from incidents off-screen: an investigation by Der Spiegel accused Seidl of under-preparing an underage cast for the film’s controversial themes, nudity, alcoholism and violence.

In Sparta, Seidl attempts to portray the horror, honesty and humanity of a man imprisoned by his impulses. The film follows the younger sibling of Rimini’s washed-up Richie Bravo; protagonist Ewald works at a power station, an Austrian expatriate living in a small village in Romania. Here, quietly blending in, he has a closer proximity and chance to pursue a freedom dressed in chains. That freedom, of course, is paedophilia: in Ewald’s case, what Seidl portrays as an innate and lifelong obsession with prepubescent boys.

For those familiar with his work, expect the usual hard-hitting Seidl aesthetics: compassion and convulsion aren’t mutually exclusive. Ulrich Seidl dares to tackle the taboo, looking the subject of paedophilia straight in the eyes, and instead of seeing a horrible monster, he sees a human being – purely as a point of principle.

In addressing such a sensitive topic, his signature aesthetic bordering on cinéma vérité depicts the complexity of imprisoned impulses and erotic infantilisation. And when push comes to shove, isn’t speaking freely of what is forbidden, hidden and terrible what cinema is all about?

Infinity Pool – Brandon Cronenberg

The prodigal son of the Canadian king of body horror, Brandon Cronenberg isn’t resting on any family laurels as he continues to carve out his niche within the genre his father created: four to the floor, existential dread and psychological dysfunction – all trademarks of his dad David Cronenberg’s oeuvre.

Infinity Pool is a stylish, sleek and sexy aesthetic freakout.

Following up the incredibly sharp and deranged intra-psychological assassin thriller Possessor, his latest outing Infinity Pool is a death-dilemma piece that unfolds in a luxury resort on a tropical island, where a wealthy couple learns that anything can be bought.

Mia Goth puts in a turn playing the sinister and seductive leader of a super-rich death cult that toys and teases their prey. Infinity Pool is a stylish, sleek and sexy aesthetic freakout. This horny horror is bloodletting of the super rich – a nightmarish tragedy where execution meets technology, where morality can be reset (if one’s pockets are deep enough). The hallucinatory orgies, twisted slab of cult psychosis, deformed fantasies and hell-for-leather grindhouse mean that, as ever, Cronenberg junior is up for a bit of genre experimentation.

And with David Cronenberg’s lukewarm Crimes of the Future earlier this year, the younger Cronenberg is probably the more interesting of the two at the moment.

  • Infinity Pool released on April 20
  • The Whale released on April 27
  • Sparta released on May 18