White-Sand Brain Death: Infinity Pool’s Travel Guide to the Death Drive

illustration by Moses Lee

“Death has nothing to do with a material model. On the contrary, the death instinct may be understood in relation to masks and costumes… It is not underneath the masks, but is formed from one mask to another, as though from one distinctive point to another, from one privileged instant to another, with and within the variations. The masks do not hide anything except other masks.”

Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition


“Enjoy hours of exploring the wreck and debris field.”

—OceanGate Expeditions website [archived]

I.
MULTICULTURAL DINING EXPERIENCES

The sea rocks with a lullaby calm.

He sits inside the small cylindrical submersible. The Titan. In the lunar dark of his midnight thoughts, in the late nights and weeks leading up to this 2023 dive, does he ever muse on the Titan’s shape, how similarly it hews to that of a coffin?

The other members of the dive sit in semi-circle around him. They are: businessman Shahzada Dawood and his 19-year-old son, Suleman; businessman Hamish Harding; explorer Paul-Henri Nargeolet. He is: Stockton Rush, CEO of deep sea tourism company OceanGate. Millionaires all. Some even billionaires, though the specific figures and hard financial data have been masked by holding companies, costumed inside offshore banks. Those sitting around him have each paid $250,000 to OceanGate—a company that caters to an unusual market, providing death-risking deep-dives for moneyed tourists to survey submerged shipwrecks, cemetery attractions at lightless depths—for an opportunity to sightsee the wreckage of the RMS Titanic, a vessel of such monumental hubris and failure that its sinking pulled some 1,500 lives into panicked, lung-flooded death.

He guides the submersible into the infinite dark of the sea, having refused to allow the Titan to be safety-rated for a dive at this depth, having boasted of using aging and discounted construction materials as a cost-cutting measure, having infamously dismissed the numerous warnings that he was tempting death and irony both by piloting his vessel to the Titanic’s final resting place.

He doesn’t even have time to flinch as—

*|*

“Each act of failure is a sort of mental and physical puzzle.”

He sits slump-shouldered in his chair, listening, unable to look at anything but her. Their bodies are hazed in shades of precious commodities—blood, gold—from the red and yellow imitation Chinese paper lamps that hang dim and sallow above them like dying stars. His hollow and hungry eyes trace the whorls of her hair, the curves of her lips as she speaks, tracking the outlines of her persona as she defines herself to him.

I’m an actress, of course,” Gabi Bauer (Mia Goth) tells the rapt James Foster (Alexander Skarsgård) from across their table at “Yang’s,” the ersatz reproduction of a Chinese restaurant in which they’re on a double-date with their spouses, Alban Bauer (Jalil Lespert) and Em Foster (Cleopatra Coleman). And in her superficially banal yet insidiously serpentine way, Gabi is not only defining herself, but also setting into motion the dynamics that will send James on a goregasmic journey of debauched, hallucinatory self-discovery and self-annihilation.

For commercials. I have a contract with an L.A. company,” she coos, establishing herself as pitchwoman, actor, commodifier, seducer, before quietly mirroring her intent for James in language about herself: “They’ve been grooming me.

I specialize in failing naturally,” she continues, her penetrating and posh London accent explaining that she’s the person in commercials who cannot function without The Product—that which needs to be sold, to be coveted, to mean something, the item that will define you as a person. She’s the woman who topples over when doing crunches without the Ab-Blaster, who cartwheels into calamity while carrying cumbersome hoses rather than the singularly convenient Pocket Hose. “I’m the one who simply can’t go on without The Product. It’s ridiculous for me to not have The Product,” she emphasizes, ludicrously demonstrating by pretending to be unable to cut a bun in half with a butter knife. Her hands wrestle with knife and bun like drowning beach crabs. “No one can cut bread with a knife,” she moans, approximating a person without persona until they have that which will complete them. “I need the BunChop.” She looks up from the dull blade with an intensity that’s easy to mistake for dogged vapidity, rather than what it truly, sinuously is. James—a blandly muscled monument to both that kind of miserably nonexistent interiority and inversely overabundant overachievement in failure—nods in almost relieved recognition, smiling wide for what seems like the first time in his entire vacation.

James, don’t you need the BunChop?”

*|*

It’s the second time the subject of knives cuts between Gabi and James today. The first: When they met-cute, or rather met-ominous, on the white-sand beachfront of the Pa Qlqa Pearl Princess resort in the seaside country of Li Tolqa. Both wealthy tourists get pulled into a panicked herd of other vacationers, all anxious eyes and clutched handbags, as a rogue native Li Tolqan protests these moneyed travelers co-opting his homeland into an affluent retreat. The native roars across the beach in a heavy-motored four-wheeler, doing donuts between the high thread count beach towels and spewing sand and gas fumes across the toned, tanned, and Ab-Blasted bodies of the cosmically rich. James asks the nearby Gabi about the purpose of the protest, and she purrs “Someone is making a statement…He’s saying that he wants to put a long knife right through here,” her index finger reaching up to trace a loop within his throbbing clavicle—a loop that with its playful flirting and implication of mortal violence knots concepts of fucking and death together like a noose around his neck.

As he passively allows this stranger to touch him, he also allows her to define him. When she correctly identifies him as James Foster, author of the book The Variable Sheath, James is shocked—he’s wholly unused to having fans or being recognized, and he’s been gripped by writer’s block for six years (“I’m starting to think it might be the lack of talent,” he later mutters), and so has, rather sadly, come to an all-inclusive luxury resort expecting its endless lurid comforts to somehow inspire him. James is a man without definition, a looseweave binding of languid neuroses and comfortable depression, a man who has tried—and is increasingly failing—to define himself as a writer. Thus Gabi’s identification of him as such—a “brilliant” writer, no less, one whose book she loves—electrifies him, awakens him, defines him.

*|*

Each act of failure is a sort of mental and physical puzzle.

As Gabi explains the nature of her infomercial performance art, she also sets the table for the film to come. Writer/director Brandon Cronenberg’s 2023 feature Infinity Pool is a waking nightmare of mind- and meat-threshed existential reckonings, a synesthetic kaleidoscopia of narcotic dread whose mesmeric throbs of rage and terror and deathlust reside in some twilight borderland in which science fiction, social critique, and near-cosmic horror form a collective tour map into the nature of human identity and the death drive that motors it, defines it, obliterates it.

And that tour map begins here, in this scene, as Gabi orchestrates a series of conversational reveals in which the first of many layers of each person’s identity at the table is unmasked. The talk of careers leads Alban to outline himself as an architect-turned-editor of the architectural journal Glass Plane; Gabi’s mention of failure prods something within James that’s almost akin to relief—for him, the idea of grandiose and permanent failure might possess a gene-deep allure of such cosmology that he can only barely comprehend even as he craves it; Em is goaded into revealing that James gets by because he “married rich,” and that she pays for his drifting, soft-focus existence as a wife who is “in danger of becoming a charitable organization at this point.”

With these disclosures—these first veils of personae removed—the camera makes a vertiginous swoop upward, slowly gliding along to display the restaurant’s mirrored ceiling, in which we watch the reflected doubles of these people, and see them from an entirely new vantage.

It’s a shot that—forgive the pun—mirrors the opening moments of the film, in which Em and James awaken cocooned within the dark of their blackout-curtained hotel room. Per Cronenberg, the room in which the scene was shot was rather mazelike and cramped for a movie crew, a kind of puzzle in which the camera was physically unable to be pointed at the actors directly, and so was trained upon a large floor-to-ceiling mirror that captured their reflections instead. As such, the film’s first scene features mirrored dopplegängers of Em and James, asleep in the dark until he begins to mutter in a dream state that he can’t feed himself with “white-sand brain death.” Em startles awake and asks what he meant, and the two settle into the verbal costumery of their marriage and the roles they’ve built for themselves within it—James evades like a skittering animal, defining his narcoleptic admission of a strange hunger as, “You know what, I asked if you wanted breakfast,” while Em presses James to define himself (“Why are we here? It isn’t helping. You’re so frozen these days”). The conversation ends with Em throwing the curtains open, illuminating James with an unrelenting sunlight before they leave to find the resort’s omelet chef, one of the many “multicultural dining experiences” afforded them by the Pa Qlqa Pearl Princess.

In these twinned sequences that climax with their characters doubled by mirrors, the fricative power struggle centered around and within the entropic James is laid bare, with Em fighting to shine a defining light upon him so that he can actualize himself and move forward, while Gabi wishes to loose within him a psychotronic series of pleasures and agonies both mental and physical to reveal whatever lies beneath his person-mask(s).

All of this is set in motion as the camera hovers just beneath that mirrored ceiling in Yang’s, observing the dinner table. While the mirror reflects Gabi, Alban, and Em, James is wholly obscured in the glass pane by the hanging replication of a paper lamp—he is there but not there, a man without reflection.

II.
GIFT SHOPS

The sea rocks with its lullaby calm.

He reclines in the small craft, barely there, a ghost no longer in phase with the universe. In the permafrost midnight chill that’s settled deep into his bones, does he consider the consequences of his actions? Or does the atrocity exhibition unfolding before him, resembling a Hieronymus Bosch landscape being slowly drowned in mercury, does it only solidify the mutefugue horror overtaking his nervous system?

The other members of the lifeboat sit in shocked semi-circle around him, their ragged breathing and sobs almost loud enough to mute the screams of those he watches drowning around him, doomed and panicked faces gasping for air but swallowing lungfuls of nightblack saltwater. He sits silent, his face a mask emptied of all meaning or persona, this waking nightmare having stripped him of all he was—J. Bruce Ismay, nepo inheritor of the British shipping company White Star Line from his dead father; J. Bruce Ismay, whose ocean liner Titanic now sinks on its maiden voyage, in which he pressed the vessel to reckless speed tests across waters jagged with ice; J. Bruce Ismay, who managed to find his way to a lifeboat despite having reduced the Titanic’s complement of escape vessels from 48 to 16 as a money-saving effort prior to launch. This oceanic holocaust has unmade all that he was, all he defined himself by, as he sits here, almost childlike, in some final state of being.

As the Titanic continues its slow descent into the void beneath the Atlantic—as unyielding water floods its luxury cabins, its massive gymnasium, its smoking room and various lounges, its extravagant steam baths, its gift shops, its fucking swimming pool, and its many beautiful restaurants in which just hours earlier some of the wealthiest human beings on Earth were reveling in the last dining experience of their lives in opulent splendor—this tuxedoed man-thing in the boat turns to look away, having seen enough and unable to watch any more of the mass death taking shape all around him, outlining him, defining him for decades to come, decades in which his wealth will protect him from suffering a single legal consequence for his actions upon returning home.

*|*

It’s fitting that James, in seeking a kind of psychic self-confrontation to jump-start his creativity and complete his definition of “James Foster” the writer, would journey to the Pa Qlqa Pearl Princess resort. Because he and the resort are one and the same—brutalist cavities masked by bland, inoffensive beauty. And just past that blandness, held in the inkblack dark of a mask’s eyeholes, are annihilative horrors both elemental and manmade that tease a kind of madness and death that are almost blessed because of the relief from existence that they offer—for those who can afford it.

The Pa Qlqa Pearl Princess is a false town, a simulacrum city haloed in barbed wire. It was designed by the hyper-wealthy as a kind of opulent Disneylandification of world cultures for those rich enough to buffet-graze upon whichever facets of civilization idly fascinate them; the kind of place where native Li Tolqan and Pa Qlqa Princess Events Coordinator Ketch (Ádám Boncz) will find himself acting as a Li Tolqan cultural liaison in the morning, then as the distinctively not Chinese maître d’ at “authentic” Chinese restaurant Yang’s that night,  then as a Hasidic Jew affixing obscenely long noses on to similarly-dressed Li Tolqan children prior to a Jewish event the next day, all before organizing an “Indian Bollywood Dancing” event the following evening. The resort is a whirlpool of cultural commodification and mimetic appropriation that offers gaudy clones of the world around itself, matching the desires of the hyper-wealthy while hiding an awful poverty and emptiness beneath its costumes.

For as much as the Pa Qlqa Pearl Princess ostensibly “celebrates” Li Tolqan culture by replicating and selling it to its prosperous clientele—mostly in the form of “ekki” masks, hideous, malformed visages resembling chromosomally-twisted hellfucks corroded by Lovecraftian unspeakabilities that are worn to celebrate the country’s holiday of Umbramaq (“The Summoning”), when the monsoon season begins and the tourists abdicate—its concrete outer walls crowned with never-ending loops of razorwire hint at its true nature. Li Tolqa is a country beset by absolute poverty and controlled by a corrupt, brutishly conservative totalitarian state. The high walls of the resort are meant to keep the starving locals without, and the rich tourists safe within.

And so it makes a kind of sense that James should find himself here. He is a false man, a simulacra person haloed in blonde dishrag affability. He has no sense of self,  a comically-inert loser not even capable of outright nepotism; rather, he is a nepo-in-law, living off the wealth of Em’s publishing magnate father who both hates James and got his book published to appease Em (additionally, the fact that Infinity Pool’s director and star are the sons of successful men in their respective fields is a kind of meta-smirk lurking under the mask of the film). Like the resort, he is a fundamentally inauthentic copy, the author of The Variable Sheath variably sheathing himself in personae—Em’s husband, the cultured author, the man of wealth—and despairing that none fit. Existentially adrift, he finds himself in the unique position of extreme affluence through which he can cast about pathetically and pitiably in an aimless search for some kind of meaning. Like the resort, he is a copycat, a walking-talking cloning facility mimicking the world around himself, yet he is unable, despite all his resources and wealth, to (re)create something that feels real. 

And like the resort, James’s masks conceal a poverty—though not  of economics, but of the soul. Within that poverty is a gnawing hunger, both selfish and human, for meaning. Countervailing that hunger, though, is a horror, commiserate to his wealth, that once everything becomes attainable, then only one thing remains meaningful.

*|*

Before James murders a native Li Tolqan man—everything that poor farmer was, everything he could have ever been, all glitterglistening in reflected red starlight as the infinity of his life pools outward onto asphalt from the man’s split skull—he convinces Em to spend another day with Alban and Gabi, happy to have found a fan club to reinforce his sense of writerly self. Taking advantage of the country’s extreme poverty, Alban bribes a resort employee to borrow his convertible, and to allow them, against the resort’s cardinal rule, to leave Pa Qlqa Pearl Princess and venture out into the countryside.

What happens next is an increasingly insidious continuation of the systematic unmasking that took place at that table in Yang’s, as Gabi and Alban work their fingers beneath the outer rim of James’s masks, curious what lies underneath. The foursome spend a lazy afternoon fattening themselves on wine and Alban’s beachside barbeque, with the former architect building a teasing verbal cage around James, creepily joking that he’s stuffing him full of meat and drink so they can feed upon him for dinner. Later, as James excuses himself to piss behind a tree, Gabi wordlessly slinks behind him, reaching around to stroke his cock hard as James freezes in abject shock, gasping wide-eyed like a fish rejected upon the white sand by the sea. Gabi clinically jerks onward, her eyes studying his face as he passively allows it, either through attraction to her or to her idea of him or simply because he lacks the agency to stop her, moaning intensely as his cum splatters upon beachrock (James may be the only human being to come both passively and intensely at the same time) like some kind of biological skin being shed. 

The visibly-shaken and confused James can hardly focus afterwards, as if some outer sheath has been torn from him, can hardly focus as he later drives the group back to the resort, can hardly focus when adjusting the car’s headlights in the dark Li Tolqan night—and never sees the farmer crossing the country road until the car smashes into his body, crunching bone and collapsing organs and severing arteries and hurtling the man’s body into death; James can hardly focus as his overworked synapses flare against the cataract of shock lowering upon them, can barely seem to hear as Gabi coldly takes control and unmasks more of Li Tolqan culture just as she has unmasked more of James, hissing that it is an uncivilized country of brutality and filth, and that if called, the police will imprison James and rape and murder herself and Em; and James can hardly focus as Alban hurriedly drives them home, he can hardly focus as this nightmare neverending continues run-on into the next day, can hardly focus as the Li Tolqan Detective Iral Thresh (Thomas Kretschmann) knocks upon his hotel room door in the morning to arrest him for murder, can hardly focus as Detective Thresh—with all the coolly assured authority of a man whose identity was shaped hard and unyielding by Eastern Bloc authoritarianism—interrogates him at the police station; a deeply-confused and terrified James can hardly focus as Thresh tells him that Li Tolqan law dictates that James be executed by the dead farmer’s oldest son, and a begging, simpering James can hardly focus when Thresh notes that the Revised Process of Doubles Act for International Visitors and Diplomats is a deal his government offers to foreign visitors in his situation as part of the country’s longstanding tourism initiative, in which very wealthy tourists can pay an extraordinarily large amount of money for the state to create a clone of James—a copy who will have all of James’ memories, a genetic dopplegänger so precise it will believe itself to be James and guilty of James’ crimes, one that will be executed in his place—and so does he, James William Foster, for the associated fee, consent to be doubled?

*|*

Later, James stands before an ATM in the sublunar concrete ruin of the police station, slowly entering his PIN—his identity—and then flaccidly cupping his hand under the cash dispenser for it to ejaculate money that is not his, money that is Em’s, money that is Em’s father’s, to pay for his clone. He enters the code to himself into the machine, but what shoots forth isn’t his, it isn’t him.

Before he is ever cloned, James is a copy of the people he sees around him, a PIN to an account that houses a value not his own. A mask of a person, wrapped around nothingness.

III.
A REJUVENATING HEALTH SPA

They sit inside the darkened theaters and watch a romantic fantasy unfurl within the confines of a three-hour film in which everyone knows the ending to come, anticipating that ending, the romance and the fantasy heightened by the knowledge of inevitable death on a massive scale.

Millions of them, of us, pay to watch Titanic, a film that uses as its backdrop a monumental act of moneyed hubris, and as its dramatic motor the actual death of thousands of tourists whose atomized remains still drift and decay in the high-pressure depths that surround the skeletal ruin of the downed ship. We watch as the thrill of the deaths-to-come awakens something within us, knife-sharp and hungry, as those deaths-to-come give meaning to what happens before. And to what could happen after.

The ecstasy of last things, the honeyed taste of rebirth that death teases. The film is mercilessly designed to serve as a catharsis-generator, in which death is entertainment and the audience is privy to both wealth and failure of gargantuan proportions, in which a financially destitute character must die so that a rich one can learn a lesson and live.

Titanic will make $2.264 billion in box office receipts, attracting at that time more audiences than any other film in human history . 

*|*

A phantasmic storm begins, a rage of swirling nebulae and stutterstrobed light all latticed with geometric patterns shot through with seismic color shifts, and within that storm there are bodies—bodies, bodies dancing, bodies fucking, bodies dying—and masks masks masks, masks everywhere, ekki masks, the ceremonial faces that hide our own and reflect a hideousness within, a torrential storm of sound and vision, of birth and life and death and rebirth and relife and redeath, a pattern as inevitable as it is neverending, until it actually does. End.

And that is what you see when you are cloned. When you are repeated.

*|*

The long middle section of Infinity Pool is the most uncanny stretch of the film (which is saying something), bookended as it is by two sequences of prismatic nightmaria, strange and shocking polychrome thunderclouds thick with a hellrain of bizarre imagery— death and rebirth and the fuck-impulse that unites the two, all variveined with layers of chaotic visual effluvia that could be the first random blinkered thoughts of a newborn or the final flickering spasms of a brain in the throes of death. 

And housed within those two bookended life- and death-scapes is James’s strange journey from there and back again, the story of a man locked in his embryonic entropy who becomes cloned and pays to witness that clone’s death, and who in the face of that death feels reborn—who crafts a new identity, a new mask to hide behind—and who then descends back into entropy within that new entity’s most superficial aspects. It’s a journey that when held up to a twisted Li Tolqan funhouse mirror could be seen as a veiled—or sheathed—embodiment of all our twisted journeys through endlessly repeating ego-births and ego-deaths as we lurch ever-closer to a final, cleansing, pattern-shattering End.

It’s a long midsection of almost byzantine emotional and psychological complexity, grappling with the most elemental facets of human identity, as well as the cultures of wealth and despair that have coral’d around those identities for centuries.

And for those for whom that is too heavy: it also features a woman who shits feces from her nipples into a man’s hungry mouth during an orgy. 

*|*

To watch James watch himself die is to see a man come alive.

As Em weeps and moans beside him in the execution chamber, James watches in mounting fascination, shedding his initial revulsion like scaled skin, his eyes alight with a kind of life almost wholly incongruent with the comatose mug we’ve stared at for the film’s first 40 minutes. He gasps for air like a newborn baby; his fingers spasm like a being fresh to the world. As the farmer’s son repeatedly stabs his clone—and thus stabs James—sheathing the knife endlessly into James’s cloned body, something is awakened within him. Already a figurative clone, James has paid to finance his own death-consequences to a double, has commodified his own death into a kind of theater to be experienced and viewed, and in that viewing he finds a kind of thrill, something beyond vacation delights or imagined trysts with a newfound fan or a re-energized relationship with Em. A catharsis beyond pleasure.

To watch James watch himself die is to see a man reborn.

*|*

One suspects: if you were privileged enough to be granted access to the surely-palatial home where James lives (you couldn’t call it “James’s home,” because James couldn’t have paid for it—Em’s father must have), and if you were to enter his home office where’s he’s spent countless hours pacing, turning ideas over in his hands as often as he does personas to wear, the keys on his laptop as untapped as his not-particularly-there potential, you’d likely find shelves upon shelves of pristine books, whole walls of them, the mask of a well-read author’s study.

Run your index finger across the books as you pass, all the unbent and uncracked spines as unused and untested as James’s own, and you’ll likely come across a work James purchased ostensibly to more deeply understand the characters he intends to write, but probably unconsciously acquired to better study and appropriate the personas he copies—the husband, the writer, the rich man. The book is Beyond the Pleasure Principle by Sigmund Freud, a work that—among other things—strives to understand why beings seemingly designed to pursue pleasure and survival instead revel in viciously death-oriented behaviors. Why do we regress, devolve, shatter our progress? Why do we repeat patterns of self-destruction and self-obfuscation?

Around these notions, Freud elucidated the idea of the “death drive,” an impulse buried reptile-deep in our brains, a desire to escape from the trauma and pain of our lives—and to escape from the prisons of our own self-made personas—by returning to an anterior state of being that existed prior to any loss or suffering. A kind of purifying annihilation, the death drive paradoxically seeks succor in obliteration, a return from organics to the inorganic material we once were. To end our natural and continual failings in the infomercial of our lives. To disorganize from life back to nonlife, to uncreate, to be nothing but wasted seed splattered upon rocks on the beach. 

To seek demise, Freud tells us in his tourist’s guide to death, is to be driven by traumas and terrors and the exhaustion they produce. It is also, though, a will to create: something from nothing. To return to our pre-life state inherently promises to then follow with what naturally occurs after pre-life—birth. To die, this instinct tells us, is to restart from zero. Thus in a life in which everything is attainable, only this one thing remains meaningful. Because if we lose something, if we sacrifice something—like a life, say—we create something that is valuable. In ways both philosophic and commercial, the act of discontinuing a thing, of making it unavailable,  inherently provides it with newfound value—it’s why so many religions coalesce around ritualized sacrifice. To destroy oneself is to then render oneself of value, to be reborn into a state in which we can start anew. From the loss that the death drive insistently throbs us into, we produce an object of meaning and value where there was none—our life. The Product.

*|*

What is wrong with you?”

As James laughably packs the first true souvenir of his vacation into his suitcase—an urn containing ash and bone, the last remains of his brief and brutalized clone—Em is a flurry of panic, a tornado of flung toiletries and zipping suitcase compartments and inconceivable horror, but not so panicked that she can’t clock how aroused James was by watching himself beg for mercy before bleeding out on a dirty killing floor, and how loose and free he now seems in their hotel room, as if unburdened by a mask he could no longer bear. He has lost his entire fetid and insubstantial identity—and not just in some metaphoric sense: his passport, his lone identification, is now gone, missing. He can’t go home again.

His response is typically James-ian (even in this freshly awakened state, the bad habits of his previous self are already seeping in, hinting at a rebirth more superficial than salvational), casting about from defining himself against one woman for another. While Em waits in their hotel room, James books himself another week at the hotel—under Em’s name and credit, the potential value of his already-questionable rebirth not extending to his credit limit—to ostensibly give more time to find (himself) his passport. He then aimlessly drifts about until Gabi finds him. She admits both she and Alban have also been cloned, after Alban tried to design a “pervy” infinity pool in the ceiling of a resort bar, but a glass pane (that which gave the name to Alban’s creative act, his magazine, Glass Pane) came loose and killed a Li Tolqan worker. Alban and Gabi’s clones were made and executed as a consequence, deaths they paid to simultaneously avoid and embrace.

“Maybe think of it as a gift. You said you were looking for inspiration.”

*|*

As lightning scars the night sky, slicing into it as a harbinger of Li Tolqa’s Umbramaq, Gabi takes James to the villa she and Alban share, where he meets Jennifer (Amanda Brugel), Charles (Jeff Ricketts), Dr. Bob (John Ralston), and Bex (Carline Boulton), a.k.a. the self-identified “zombies,” who, along with Gabi and Alban, are obscenely wealthy libertines who annually visit Li Tolqa to revel in sex, violence, and, eventually, death, as their misadventures always climax (in nearly every sense of the word) with the grisly execution of their doubles. The crimes they’ve committed are as banal as drug use, blasphemy, and sodomy—transgressions so everyday and easy to do anywhere else that it’s clear what they truly seek is the thrill of obliteration, the sensuously queasy joy of violating another culture and then paying to watch themselves die without consequence.

James experiences a queer thrill in falling in with these lewd fuckfreaks; one can sense him adopting their ideals (or lack thereof) in real time, replacing the discarded masks of the James Williams Foster persona, husband and writer, with those belonging to these licentious and breathlessly perverse tourists. Whereas James had previously pressed himself against Em, using her life to form an outline of “James” around himself, here he begins to do the same with the zombies—specifically Gabi, who whispers to him, manipulating him towards zombiedom, “it’s like a new skin working itself into place.” Or like a mask.

And when we next see James, he’s working an ekki mask onto his face, a kind of hideous, flesh-flayed devil with horns more downturned and limp than erect. He and the other zombies have raided a gift shop for the masks before marauding onward to the mansion of one of the few wealthy Li Tolqans, the resort owner who had Alban and Gabi’s first clones killed. There, Gabi hands James a gun, goading him to murder the hostage resort owner, holding his hand with the gun just as she cradled his cock and guided him to orgasm. Whispering to him, teaching him, explaining that this new James, the new James she wants him to be, could never let such an existential insult to Gabi go unpunished…and watching him fail, handing the gun back, unwilling to take a step that far out into the abyss.

*|*

When the zombies (including James) are caught this time, and their (new) clones are killed yet again for this most recent assault against Li Tolqan culture, there is no dream-lathered and fantastically chimerical lightshow sequence—just a jarring smash-cut to watching these characters having their throats cut open wide like gristle-tongued second mouths vomiting blood and sinew while the “real” zombies watch and clap and cheer from the makeshift bleachers. The effect is two-fold: for a few jarring seconds, it seems as if the “real” zombies themselves are being killed, before their originals are revealed as the live studio audience for this display—and it also serves to highlight how this clone-centered death and rebirth cycle is no longer drenched in hallucinatory portents of holy meaning. It just feels like another—if entertaining for its wealthy zombie audience—happenstance in life. Another part of the banal loop.

The question as to whether or not it is the clones or the originals being killed here lingers. Dr. Bob sporadically frets that “I’ll never know if I’m really myself, for as long as I live,” offhandedly offering up one of the film’s—and life’s—central concerns. The sleight-of-hand editing of the scene leaves the nature of clone and original and which-is-which up to the audience, forcing us to question what becomes of anyone after traumatizing events. Can we still be the person we were before? Or is that person dead? And what do we make of this person-thing that remains after that personal holocaust, both the same and not same, burdened with that which the original was not?

Further, with each passing cycle of failure and beginning anew, that double self, triple self, quadruple self must continue forward, becoming increasingly less precious and meaningful, and thus requiring a higher price to be paid each time: more extremity must be sought to attain greater meaning.

All of which James never seems to consider, beaming like a little boy on his birthday as the other zombies cheer his name and clap his back and ruffle his hair as he watches his clone, or maybe his original, die screaming on a concrete floor (and it should be noted that while James is doing very little of consequence, his double, Alexander Skarsgård, is doing the very best work of his career). It’s only when James is forced to brush against true consequence—Em leaves him and Li Tolqa in horror when James hilariously moseys back into their hotel room with another urn in his arms like a child’s soccer trophy—that he has a moment of contemplation on the beach, listening to the distant storms that are coming. There he smokes a cigar and dons his ekki mask, doing what James does—waiting for life to arrive. And it does, in the form of Gabi, armed with Li Tolqan ekki gate, a precious and traditional native  root used in their religious practices, a holy hallucinogen that’s been commodified into a sex drug by the zombies. As Gabi feeds it to him, hammering him into newfound shape, James gives in, and the cycle repeats again.

*|*

And this is what you see when you are cloned. When you are repeating.

A phantasmic storm climaxes, a rage of swirling nebulae and stutterstrobed light all honeycombed with geometric patterns shot through with seismic color shifts, and within that storm, figures can be seen—bodies, bodies endlessly fucking, Gabi riding James, James passively pressed into a chaise lounge while the muscles in Gabi’s body work and striate as she grinds him into the sweat-sticky leather, the other zombies all around him, sucking and fucking each other into combinational oblivion, the hallucinogens driving them to the edge, their faces becoming the ekki masks, becoming the hideousness within, a torrential storm of sound and vision, repeating patterns of birth and life and death and rebirth and relife and redeath, a pattern as inevitable as it is neverending, until we’re deathdriven to something that actually does. End.

IV.
GROUP ACTIVITIES

He sits at his laptop. In the claustrophobe dark of his room, in the days after his stepfather Hamish Harding disappeared with five others on the Titan submersible, he has sat here, his face defined from the empty dark by the glow of the digital screen.

In these strange days bookended by the submersible’s disappearance and its recovery, when the whole world becomes transfixed and entertained by the story of these missing rich, Brian Szasz has been sitting at his laptop, crafting an online persona for himself as @audioguy182 on the social media platform X (formerly known as Twitter before being purchased by Elon Musk, a billionaire whose every decision and public blunder convey a man desperate to create a world that will destroy him). As @audioguy182, Szasz has been reborn into a public figure, a microcelebrity shaped and shaded by the possible death of rich men.

Something about this rebirth has changed Brian, and with the mask of “@audioguy182” he presents himself to the world with a posturing, arrogant smugness. He cheerfully accepts online condolences with gleefully exclamation-pointed replies. He asks his favorite band, blink-182, to play his favorite song at a concert he will be attending during this period when a multimillion-dollar search is underway for his stepfather. He repeatedly employs hate speech and racial slurs against those questioning his lack of grief. He threatens to run for president. Later, he will complain that, despite his sizeable inheritance from his dead billionaire stepfather, women will not fuck him. He will occasionally mention these incidents while attempting to seduce OnlyFans models online, despite previous arrests and restraining orders for harassing women.

Death looses something craven and unhinged within this nepo-manbaby, frees some darkly unspeakable impulse. Rather than being reborn, it is as if the very worst of his emptiness has been amplified into a cycle of wanton self-destruction.

*|*

Above all else, Infinity Pool is a deeply successful portrait of failure. James, the hollow cavity at its center, is the star of its infomercial on identity, its tour brochure of the death drive. He is a natural failure who fails naturally. There is a fundamental emptiness at the center of him, some deep and broken thing, made all the more untouchable by years of pampered wealth. Despite Em’s every genuine attempt and James’s own fumblings, he is almost an anti-person, made all the more unreal by the guises he attempts to wear. He creates an outline of self by those who surround him, which only alienates him further from meaning, and sends him repeatedly on cycles of death and rebirth, tripping over himself because he lacks The Product: an identity of his own.

*|*

See James: the center of an orgy of zombies, only there and visible and given definition because of those around him, on top of him, surrounding him, providing him shape and flesh even as he simply lays there while those bodies slap and fuck against him. See as he once again repeats himself, see how he fails naturally, discarding one cloned identity (James William Foster, husband and writer) for another (James, the dim and debauched satyr). 

See how he repeats this pattern even after his encounters with death, feeling these momentary bursts of superficial enlightenment before settling, rut-stuck and life-blind, into habit because nothing was truly given value, nothing sacrificed and nothing created; rather, James has simply become a customer paying to die vicariously. He is both tourist and tourist attraction.

*|*

See James: the center of a breakfast with the zombies, all hungover and fucked-out and stinking of sex and boozesweat, the zombies cuddled around James at the head of the table, where he blindly sits like a proud child-fool, half-naked and slurping cherries. His smug face covered in spit and juice, his sticky hands tossing food and glasses at neighboring tables in the resort cafe, chest puffed and ludicrously posturing as a Nietzschean Ubermensch after a single night of group sex. See the rest of the zombies laughing at his antics, giving him shape and form by outlining around him, echoing this false identity back at him, this anti-catharsis. See Gabi eyeing his face, a face so sweaty and greased it’s as if he’s wearing a James mask. See as she tells him about the detective who first arrested him, how that detective wants to shake him down for more money. See how the other zombies chime in, that they’ve been trying to help James get a new passport, a new identity, but the detective is holding it up. See how Gabi shapes James, telling him “you need to show him that you’re the dominant in this conflict.”

*|*

See James: surrounded by the other zombies in a parking lot like half-assed mercenaries. See the pattern repeat, another marauding zombie attack. See him solitary in the parking lot outside an office building, the other zombies sneaking inside to kidnap the detective. See how small he is when alone and next to the large decaying buildings, holding a pistol, drunkenly looking fearful into the dark Li Tolqan night, the panic of being briefly alone and wholly without definition, a tiny figure swallowed by that vast concrete landscape.

*|*

See James: sitting at the head of the table in Alban’s villa, ingesting more of the Li Tolqan ekki gate hallucinogen, the zombies forming a circle around him. See as a man with a red high-thread pillowcase over his head lies bound and gagged in the living room. See James swagger over to the man, grunting, pacing, while the zombies encircle him, reinforcing his shape, cheering him on, filming him with their phones, quietly munching on healthy salads while he kicks the body, while he whips out his cock and pisses on it.

See James grunt and growl with bullshit alpha male posturing, pacing fast circles around the man, punching and beating him, all aggro bravado and seething man-child glee. See Gabi as she coils around the outside of the zombie circle, paralleling James, her wide eyes never leaving him, watching proudly as he continues to shed the skin he developed with Em and work his new skin into place. See as she kneels down beside the bound man, the supposed detective, her unblinking eyes boring deep into James, past the mask of the man he is pretending to be, as she tears the pillowcase off to reveal—

See James’s new clone: laying on the floor, the skin of his face split and bleeding. See the clone the zombies say they paid the detective to make, a final mental and physical puzzle for James to fail his way through. See James confronted with himself—not watching as a distant audience member, but standing above himself, above his clone, his bloodied knuckles and his clone’s mashed face before him. See him recoil. See him no longer viewing his clone’s murder from a safe distance, but wreaking actual havoc on himself and his existence. See the uncanny agony of self-recognition as the two Jameses stare at each other, each repellant and each repelled, and see James run away in horror.

*|*

See James: crawling on the bathroom floor, reaching under the basin of the toilet to retrieve his passport, his identity, where the cowardly fuck had been hiding it all along to prolong his stay in Li Tolqa (don’t even bother to consider what Freud would say about his choice to hide his identity beneath the bowl where tourist strangers have been passing through to piss and shit for decades). See him repeat a pattern that’s likely defined his entire life—escape. 

See him board a bus, sickly and ill-defined, haunted, no one around him to provide him with the definition he cannot provide himself. See him huddled in the back of the large bus, shaken. See his horror, his outright disbelieving horror, when the zombies overtake the bus in two rented cars. See as Gabi shoots out windows, demanding James return to them (Pearl may be Goth’s finest performance to date, but her manic rictus and squeal of “JAAA-AAAAAAA-AAAAMES!” when he finally exits the bus and surrenders will be the climax of her awards-show highlight reel for the rest of her life).

See James: staggering and sweating down a Li Tolqan country road, the same kind he murdered a man upon just a few days earlier, Alban rolling a convertible behind him, Gabi lounging atop its hood and holding a gun on James with one hand while alternately chugging wine and eating from a bin of Li Tolqa’s imitation Kentucky Fried Chicken with the other. See as James passively allows himself to be deathmarched down the road, too tired and broken to care, as Gabi hurls invective and insult at him, “a real sucky baby.” See as she laughs at him, at what a failure he is, at how she and Alban had planned to make him part of their zombie troupe simply as “Just a bit of fun for us on our vacation,” and that he had accidentally accelerated their plans for him to run afoul of Li Tolqan law by killing the farmer. “We thought we’d have to get you into trouble, turns out you’re such an idiot you did it yourself.” He is plaything and Product; tourist and tourist attraction.

See James only flinch back to life after Gabi cuts something in the deepest hollows within him: “I never read your book.” See him finally stop marching when she admits how difficult he was to look up online, how depressing it was to see his vanity stoked by two oddball tourists who claimed to enjoy his novel.  See his agony build as some near-final thing within his eggshell ego begins to collapse while Gabi reads a review of his pathetic little book in a tableau of vivisectional horror-comedy:

“The Variable Sheath: As Bad as Its Title. Seeming to recognize his own lack of talent, newcomer James W. Foster overcompensates with pretension, failed posturing that only serves to emphasize how truly terrible this debut really is. Sheath is a book that has nothing to say and lacks the words to say it…”

See James: launching himself at Gabi, feral, knocking the gun from her hand in his first true moment of revolt, running into the nearby woods as Gabi fires at him, a bullet lodging deep into his leg as he keeps running, following his life’s pattern of escape.

*|*

See James: stumbling out of the woods, shot and bleeding, nearly out of his mind with pain and the fact that his new identity has been flayed skinless from his body. See as he hardly seems shocked when his story takes the form of fable; the first farmhouse he comes across for shelter is that of the dead farmer, whose family takes him in.

See James lying in a dead man’s bed. See the feverdreams overtake him, the vision of the farmer’s son attacking him, choking him, pressing his fingers into James’s face. See James rip the boy’s own face apart like a mask, only to reveal Em’s face underneath. See these two forces of accountability—the boy, Em—dig their fingers deep into James’s skull, ripping it in two to reveal—

See nothing: there is nothing inside him. Nothing at all.

*|*

It’s time for you to shed that disgusting larval mind of yours and find out what kind of a creature you really are.”

So Gabi declares when the zombies take over the farmhouse, having drawn James out into the yard and encircled him once again, forcing their definition upon him. Leashed and naked on all fours next to Gabi is yet another James clone, wild and half-mad from drugs. And it’s here that Gabi goads James a final time, demanding he embrace the death drive and destroy himself to create himself, to sacrifice in order to create meaning. “Only through blood can you release your past.”

Despite all his protestations and innate inertness, when the clone is let off the leash, gnashing and clawing into his original, James fights back, wrestling with himself, becoming himself. James comes alive, pounding his fists into the double’s skull, battering it into a bonemeal pulp with a level of frenzy and hate far beyond any madness the film had previously been able to convey. It’s an explosion of bloodgored destruction and creation, an implosive act of consequence in a life that had been defined by anything but.

See this newborn thing: crying and bloody in the grass, crying next to his dead double that’s been shed like afterbirth. This newborn thing, crying and curled fetal into the arms of the kneeling Gabi, who exposes a breast, soaks it in the double’s blood, and suckles this mewling manbaby.

V.
WHITE-SAND BEACHES

—the pitiable mask of the Titan’s hull collapses under the unrelenting pressures of the ocean’s depths, unable to withstand the shock of reality that Stockton Rush also attempted to deny, and to cheat, and to pay his way out of.

He and the men who sit in semi-circle around him, defining the outer limits of his monumental failure, implode within two hours of their journey to the dubious tourist attraction of the RMS Titanic. The rest of the world will spend days not knowing this, will spend days watching the story unfold as entertainment across the news, on their phones, on social media. There will even be a Twitter account that serves as an hourly countdown for how much air is left in the submersible if it is still intact, a thrilling countdown with thousands of followers waiting for the asphyxiation of these tourists. The rest of the world will spend millions of dollars in search and rescue efforts for the Titan (meanwhile, in the same month as this disaster, an aging fishing boat carrying migrants will infamously sink in the Mediterranean, and nearly 500 will die, having none of the resources nor attention of five rich men gone missing on a vacation trip).

The submersible, driven by Stockton Rush’s arrogance and wealth and an off-brand PlayStation controller, implodes in a fury of metal and red mist, all of which descends upon the vessel that was its destination. Pieces of the submersible and its travelers will join the sunken cemetery of the Titanic in the lightless murk at the bottom of the ocean, where eyeless beings untouched by sunlight slither and crawl upon that killing floor. And that is where he will remain, tourist and tourist attraction alike.

*|*

Infinity pools are designed to provide an impression of permanence, flowing outward into forever without boundary or limitation. The alluring illusion of something never ending. A strange concept, considering how desperately our minds crave finality, closure, endings; it makes a sort of sense that they are the purview of the maniacally rich, a treat for those who can afford to believe they’ll live forever (or at least pay to try), even if some dark and whispering part of them seeks the same ecstatic extinction as the rest of us.

And so it’s a rather elegant bit of storytelling that Infinity Pool gives us a cascade of endings, like a series of unmaskings, one right after another, each reveal a thudding, deadening conclusion about the state of James as his story comes to its end.

There is the ending at the resort, in which James packs his three urns containing the remains of his three clones into his suitcase, muttering to Em on the phone that he is finally coming home. He sits alone, no one else there to define him with their own shape. 

As he sits slump-shouldered in his chair, though, we sense a hesitance, something lingering and irresolute. Perhaps speaking to Em reminds James of his dream, in which she opened up his skull as an act of consequence, and found nothing of consequence inside.

There is the ending on the bus to the airport, in which James sits in the back row, behind the other zombies, as they trade banalities about the lives they are returning home to. Gabi talks of rearranging furniture, Alban discusses his magazine deadlines. All the unquenchable fucking and terroristic marauding and murder and self-annihilation and death was but a vacation for them, and normal life begins anew. James is alone, behind them rather than in their center, no longer defined by the outline of their shape.

As he sits slump-shouldered in his seat, though, we sense a genuine feeling of dazed confusion—what has been the central event of his life, this riptide of death and sex and rebirth that has torn through his existence, was for them a mere one-week getaway from traffic jams on the 405, the parking lots of Trader Joes. The horrible realization that this was all nothing, and without meaning.

There is the ending at the airport, in which James is given a casual “have a good flight” from Gabi as the sum total of their goodbye, the way you fare-thee-well someone with whom you share a half-hour cab ride. He is alone, unshaped and unalive with no one left to define him.

As he sits slump-shouldered in his boarding area, though, we begin to suspect what James must as well—that something in his genuine rebirth has gone wrong. That the fundamental lack of identity and interiority that had so plagued him was also transmuted into his rebirth, like a disease passed from parent to child. If his life—whether due to sloth, or an inability to craft an identity of his own, or his extreme and undeserved wealth, or some combination of it all—has always meant nothing, how could it gain value even when ending? How could the sacrifice of nothing mean something? Like a man without a passport, how can a man without an identity ever return home?

And then there is the ending at the white-sand beach of the Pa Qlqa Pearl Princess resort, where James has returned after abandoning the airport and missing his flight, now totally alone but finally defined: tourist and tourist attraction alike. He and the resort are one and the same—the brutalist cavities masked by bland, inoffensive beauty. And just past that blandness, held in the inkblack dark of a mask’s eyeholes, are annihilative horrors both elemental and manmade that tease a kind of madness and death that are almost blessed because of the relief from existence they offer—for those who can afford it.

As he sits slump-shouldered in his beach chair, we see that the storm has finally come, “The Summoning,” Umbramaq, the monsoon season when all tourists leave and all natives stay. The rain turns the once-beautiful white sand to sludge as James stares out into the infinite pool of the ocean, his face an unreadable mask, as devoid and emptied of meaning as the man who wears it. 

The rain pours on, washing away all that was, and this is where we leave him. The brain-death permanence of a true ending; the obliterative, hysterical lysergia of last things.