Moviegoers who last month watched the sex, violence and sexy violence of Brandon Cronenberg’s new thriller Infinity Pool might be surprised to learn that they did not, in fact, see the whole bloody affair. At least not the film that Cronenberg originally intended to show.
Infinity Pool, a dark satire of privilege and power focused on a novelist vacationing in a fictional pseudofascist country, originally contained sexually explicit imagery during an early scene between stars Alexander Skarsgard and Mia Goth, plus several later flashes of violence. Those elements initially caused British Columbia and Alberta’s film classification offices to award Infinity Pool an R rating, the Canadian equivalent of the U.S. Motion Picture Association’s NC-17 classification, which does not allow any ticket-buyer 17 years of age or younger. The rating can be the kiss of death for big-screen releases.
In the United States, major theatre chains won’t touch NC-17 films, and the titles are notoriously difficult to market for the few cinemas that agree to screen them. In Canada, any theatre playing an R film must have an usher stationed inside each auditorium 20 minutes before and 20 minutes into each screening to check ticket-buyers’ identifications. In other words, any such release on either side of the border is a non-starter for all but the smallest of art-house productions.
Grudgingly, Cronenberg and his producers resubmitted a slightly sanitized Infinity Pool to the Canadian review boards, earning the more palatable 18A rating (the equivalent to the MPA’s more accessible R), which allows moviegoers under the age of 18 admission if they are accompanied by an adult.
But this weekend, Elevation Pictures will release Infinity Pool Uncut in select Canadian theatres – a distribution initiative aiming to ensure that the purest vision of Cronenberg’s film is screened theatrically, despite the complications thrown its way by this country’s complex patchwork of provincial ratings boards.
“It’s deeply frustrating because this has turned ratings boards essentially into censorship boards. They have de facto censorship power over your film if it is big enough that it requires that wide release to make its money back, and an R rating takes that option away,” Cronenberg says in an interview from the Berlinale film festival, where Infinity Pool this week made its European premiere.
The director hoped that Infinity Pool would go the way of his 2020 film, Possessor. That sci-fi thriller, inarguably more violent than Infinity Pool, was released in English-Canadian theatres with an 18A rating, with no cuts necessary. (Possessor was exhibited in U.S. theatres “uncut,” with no MPA rating at all, owing to unique pandemic-era circumstances: Theatres were so desperate for new product that they would take films previously considered off-limits.)
Yet in the time between Possessor and Infinity Pool’s releases, Cronenberg believes that Canada’s ratings boards have become more stringent. “It was very unusual because whereas the MPA is very conservative, you didn’t always have that problem in Canada,” the director says.
The issue is complicated by Canada’s web of classification systems that both differ from, and are dependent on, one another. In the fall of 2019, Ontario Premier Doug Ford shut down the Ontario Film Authority, which was in charge of classifying films for the province. Since then, Ontario ratings have been provided by Consumer Protection BC, which also handles ratings for Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
Across the rest of the country, Alberta has its own Film Classification Office (which also provides ratings to the Northwest Territories and Nunavut); the Nova Scotia Film Classification Board is responsible for the Maritimes; and Quebec has its Ministry of Culture and Communications (which gave the original cut of Infinity Pool a more lenient 16+ rating).
Representatives for Consumer Protection BC and the Alberta Film Classification Office, which initially awarded Infinity Pool their most restrictive ratings of R, were not immediately available for interviews, although both associations note that their approaches for classifying films have remained consistent for years, with the closure of the OFA having no impact on their processes.
Meanwhile, Infinity Pool’s ratings saga is backdropped by an existential shift in the film-classification landscape owing to the advent of streaming.
“My understanding is that Ontario eliminated its ratings board as a cost-cutting measure, but there was also the argument of why have age-based restrictions for theatres if people can watch anything at home?” Cronenberg says. “This is the rare instance of me agreeing, at least in theory, with Doug Ford. … It’s an awkward system.”
When the OFA was shuttered in 2019, film exhibitors and distributors hoped that such deregulation would lead to the adoption of a national content advisory system, which hasn’t yet materialized.
“We’d like to see a system that’s closer to the kind that streamers and television broadcasters use, which is clear communication of what kind of content you’re going to see, but nothing so restrictive like now, where it basically doesn’t allow something to be played in theatres as intended,” says Adrian Love, executive vice-president and general manager of Elevation Pictures.
Ultimately, the “uncut” version of Infinity Pool that is now screening – at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox and Carlton cinemas, Ottawa’s Mayfair Theatre and Calgary’s Canyon Meadows Cinemas – only differs by a matter of seconds from the 18A version that opened this past January. The film’s Feb. 28 digital release will also be Cronenberg’s original cut.
“It’s not a completely different film, but there is a version of the film that I intended for people see,” Cronenberg says. “I’m glad people saw the other version last month, but I’m also glad Canadians are finally getting the full film, too – and in theatres where it’s meant to be seen.”