The Way of All Flesh
From here on, things get a little strange. Before the game can begin, a young man jumps up from a front pew, cries "Death to the demon Allegra Geller!" and starts firing a gun, which seems to have been assembled out of bone and gristle. Chaos erupts. "Trust no one," warns the focus group's organizer with his dying breath, wheezing to an Antenna Research trainee named Ted Pikul (Jude Law). "Trust no one." At this, Ted scoops up the wounded Allegra and drives her into the night, into a back country that's crawling (so she claims) with designers for neural role-playing games.
So much for exposition. The rest of the film is a fragmentary chase, which runs through patently unconvincing locales populated by actors with hilariously improbable accents. Transitions from one scene to the next are abrupt, since they're motivated by calamity: gunfire, explosion, heavy tongue-kissing. But the main cause for the jerkiness is the role-playing itself.
To test whether her beloved pod has been damaged, Allegra demands that Ted join her in a round of "eXistenZ." By now the couple has holed up for the night in a ski chalet--the sort of place where movie characters ordinarily proceed from flirtatious bickering to romance. But in the Fields-Burroughs-Cronenberg tradition, arousal takes unusual routes. Allegra and Ted join physically, but only so they can morph into the three-dimensional game world of "eXistenZ"--and then, at the first opportunity, they morph further, into a game within the game.
Disorientation, both creepy and comedic, becomes the norm, as Allegra and Ted trip from one level of hallucination to another. It certainly makes for "a wild ride," as Allegra promises at the start. What's more, the ride comes with its own criticism--a great labor-saving convenience for people like me. "Not a well-drawn character, and his dialogue was just so-so," Allegra says at one point about a figure she encounters within "eXistenZ." A few moments later, she abruptly feels the need to glue her crotch to Ted's. (I hasten to add--Cronenberg being Cronenberg--that I use "glue" metaphorically.) Passion, Allegra claims, has nothing to do with the frottage. The "game architecture" is urging her on, making her do whatever's needed to advance the story--and in this case, she pants, the plot device is "a pathetically mechanical attempt to heighten the excitement of the next game sequence."
While the sound of that line echoes in memory, I should pause to call Jennifer Jason Leigh indispensable. She's also crafty, feral, insinuating, spontaneous and every other quality Allegra Geller might need in her multiple lives. Leigh is capable of underplaying a moment to the point of moving nothing but her eyelids, or overplaying to the point of mimicking a gargoyle. She's the kind of performer who believes (in Martha Graham's words) that center stage is wherever she happens to be; but she's also so alert that she makes other actors look good, too. Jude Law, as Ted Pikul, has the unenviable assignment of impersonating a "total PR nerd" (as Allegra says)--a 21-year-old virgin who still combs his hair just as Mother did. With Leigh to play against, Law makes mere dewiness overflow into a lake of bafflement, exasperation and rising excitement.
Yes, we've circled back (as Cronenberg tends to do) to that rising excitement. Is it the only point of the exercise? Is that what eXistenZ is all about?
I will remind you that people have asked the same question of existence. Close your Burroughs, open your Schopenhauer, and you will find page after page on the subject. From a certain point of view, accessible through delirium, the concepts we call "nature" and "reality" are mere illusions; the flow of excitement, the only absolute. I'm not sure whether Cronenberg would speak in those terms. But like Fields and Burroughs before him, he portrays ordinary social relations as a laughable sham; biology as the sickening substratum, absurd and unavoidable; and fantasy as the sole vehicle of escape--a broken-down vehicle, with unwanted passengers popping clownlike through the cushions.
Did you notice, speaking of clowns, that Allegra is the ostensible author of the character and plot device she so coldly dismissed? Take time, on your wild ride, to question a few such anomalies as they whiz past. They won't necessarily point the way toward any ground of existence--but they ought to help convince you that eXistenZ is the first North American release of 1999 that can make you tingle while you're watching it, then think three days later while you replay it at home.