ON MUBI OFF is a weekly column that spotlights titles available on MUBI in the United States, as well as offsite in theaters, on VOD, Blu-ray/DVD, etc. David Cronenberg's eXistenZ (1999) is playing on MUBI May 30 - June 29, 2016 in the United States.
It's a magical moment when an urge first hits you. There you are, staring at something or someone, and your breathing slows, your chest tightens, your mouth waters. It's the first beautiful blush of an all-consuming craving, egged on by the lizard brain: I must know this thing or this creature more intimately, social decorum and personal safety be damned. Thoughts of consequence only come if you ponder too long, and guilt is reserved for when the deed is done. Wallow in misery later; enjoy the fleeting pleasures now or regret your inaction.
"I have a terrible urge to port into it," says tech goddess Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh)—heroine of David Cronenberg's sensual sci-fi thriller eXistenZ (1999)—upon seeing one of the film's fleshy and quite apparently diseased bionic game-pods, which, in a very Cronenbergian detail, connect via a skin-colored umbilical cord into an anus-like "bio-port" in a player's back. Many of Cronenberg's films to this point were read as cloaked AIDS-era allegories. eXistenZ makes the subtext supra-, to the point that even this writer—not-so-valiantly struggling with his own urges when he first encountered this kissing cousin/incendiary fuckbuddy to The Matrix (released just a month before)—couldn't mistake his many fears and desires laid bare.
One fear among the many: Eroticism equals death. Or is the latter just intertwined with the former—an ever-present possibility, but not necessarily a certainty? How do we reconcile lusting for someone or something that could very well hasten our end? Let's go back to the beginning, to Geller's first line of dialogue, spoken in a church where the faithful have gathered to try out her new VR product (also named "eXistenZ"): "The world of games is in a kind of a trance."
That's the word. 'Trance.' Effectively being inside your body even as you are outside of it. The way Cronenberg and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky stage the scene, Geller is almost always framed with the adoring crowd barely, if at all visible on the edges of the image. She's by herself even in a room full of people, perhaps by choice, most certainly out of necessity. But there's another just like her: Ted Pikul (Jude Law), the anonymous yet attractive PR nerd sitting at the back of the church. As Geller speaks, he leans slowly forward, his chair creaking—a first involuntary step toward full-on infatuation. Why fight it? Can it be fought?
You could say fate intervenes next (though those familiar with the film's end game, unspoiled here, will know it's much more complicated). An assassin steps from the crowd, shoots Geller in the shoulder, and she and Pikul go on the run through both real and virtual spaces. Cronenberg has said that one of the film's inspirations was the fatwa put on author Salman Rushdie's head after the publication of The Satanic Verses (1988), though it's doubtful the persecuted novelist would have ever found himself on the wrong end of a gun made from amphibian bones and with human teeth for bullets.
In a telling early scene, Geller instructs Pikul to pull over to the side of the road so they can have an "intimate moment." Pocket-knife at the ready, he prepares to dig out the projectile molar from her shoulder. Pikul hesitates. "If you're gonna do it, do it," she says. "OK," he replies, and with no further scruples presses the knife right into the wound—the first glimmer of trust between partners. To trust your lover is everything, a myopia that feels as if it's universal. There is only this, only us, and we are all.
But there are others, too, even if they're simulacrums. In the world of eXistenZ, you can never be entirely certain if you're speaking to a real person or a digitally replicated facsimile, though every contact exists, basically, to further Geller and Pikul's anarchic, kink-laden quest. My favorite of these informants is, of course, Gas, the black market bio-port seller who owns a country gas station (literally emblazoned with the words "Country Gas Station") and played with wide-grinning mischief and menace by Willem Dafoe. The actor's opening credits chyron ("and Willem Dafoe as Gas"), in addition to being one of the finest assemblages of words in the English language, calls up an image (very appropriate to Cronenberg's strange brew) of a human being as a pure state of matter, one that's likely to dematerialize from sight and mind all of an instant.
People come and go from this virtua-adventure (certain actors' disappearances and reappearances become meta running gags), but Geller and Pikul always manage to find each other. The closer they get, and the further they delve into eXistenZ and its ever-mutating mysteries, the more that trance state of attraction (which Law and Leigh play up to the point that they themselves seem no less discomfortingly and magnetically infatuated) blurs their own sense of fantasy and reality. Self-awareness, or at least a flailing stab at it, becomes the duo's only anchor: "Our characters are obviously supposed to jump on each other," says Geller when she and Pikul follow the seeming demands of the game and start sucking face. It's both frightening and freeing to give ourselves over to sex, and unsurprising that we often have to justify, even if only in our own heads, the carnal urges that we mostly keep in check.
At one point, Pikul stares blankly at Geller's bio-port (practically a Kuleshov moment in the way the shots are cut together), then leans forward to vigorously tongue it. Gross and hilarious, but also so perfectly attuned to human sexuality. I know of few directors better than Cronenberg who grasp the simultaneous allure and absurdity of coitus. Even with the potential for repercussion, the hunger can't be denied.