Blithe, bleak joker that he is, Cronenberg takes an adage that usually comes draped in positive platitudes -- "art changes you" -- and stands it on its head, letting all the loose change roll out. The results are some of the deftest pieces of caricature he has yet committed to film. Willem Dafoe is surprisingly robust and hilarious as a gas station attendant known as "Gas," who feels that Allegra's game systems have transformed him, though after playing them he's still a grease monkey. (His favorite Allegra creation is "ArtGod: Very spiritual. God the artist, God the mechanic. They don't write them like that anymore.") And Ian Holm, after his overrated bout of emotional rigidity in The Sweet Hereafter (1997), regains his satiric twinkle as an enigmatic Eastern European game-pod surgeon who jokes that dealing with materials like amphibian eggs has turned him and his assistant into "glorified veterinarians."

There's no question that Cronenberg's heart is with the gamemakers. The script, referring to the plot to eliminate Allegra, uses the term Fatwa (a la Salman Rushdie), and Cronenberg peppers the film with potshots at the commercial and competitive pressures put on popular artists and at the obsessive perfectionism they inflict on themselves. (Allegra rates one of her characters as "not very well drawn" and sniffs, "His dialogue was just so-so.") Yet Cronenberg doesn't let himself, or Allegra, off the hook. Even in an amusement like eXistenZ, where game parts are sex toys, Cronenberg wants art to play with fire -- and artists to shoulder the risks. This time out, the result is a movie mind-game with an erotic tingle.

Written and directed by David Cronenberg. Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm, and Willem Dafoe.

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