There's a funny story in Marilyn Manson's autobiography The Long Road Out of Hell about going to the Private Parts premiere and seeing Flava Flav across the lobby. Manson was high at the time (this was the 90’s; of course he was high) and he assumed that Flav was high, too, because Flav was wearing sunglasses indoors at night. (Also, he’s Flava Flav.) Manson tried to give the “we both know we're both on drugs” wink to Flav, and Flav seemed to understand what Manson was trying to communicate, but because Mason was also wearing sunglasses at the time he couldn't be sure if the message actually got relayed. By the time he realized that if he wanted to communicate with his eyes that maybe he should take his sunglasses off his target audience had wandered off.
eXistenZ is a movie where layers of reality collapse in on themselves in a “I think we’re out of the video game now but how do we know?” way. Those movies can be entertaining, but they can be hard to parse, because the heaviness of the film’s conceit creates a real barrier between the filmmaker and the audience. Maybe you’ll get it if they’re winking at you, but maybe you won’t.
In general, director David Cronenberg can be hard to pin down, but the extra layers of reality in this movie really complicate the picture. I'm sure that the guy who made Videodrome and Naked Lunch is legitimately interested in challenging our conception of what reality is, but I'm also aware how much of a sick sense of humor he brings to the table. In this movie it can be hard to tell where one starts and the other ends. Sometimes he seems to be using the movie's meta-conceit to actually say something about what life is like, but other times it seems like he's more interesting in creating a world where there are no rules because that gives him the freedom to open up his idea notebook and unload every design he's ever had for a mutant amphibian. (There are a lot – like a lot-lot – of mutant amphibians in this movie.)
The only reason why the serious philosophical tone and the joking midnight movie parts of the movie can even co-exist is because Jennifer Jason Leigh is so good as the movie's anchor. She always brings just the right mixture of excitement and reserve to each scene. In every scene Leigh seems interested in what’s happening, maybe even excited, but she's never quite fully committed, either, usually offering a little bit of ironic detachment in her voice or her body language. I don't know how she calibrated her sarcasm so precisely, but she's really funny in the movie without actually mocking any of what's happening, even when what’s happening is ridiculous. It's a rare performance and it makes the movie coherent even as it follows dream logic down endless tangents.
In the end, I think I caught when Cronenberg was winking at me. But I'll never know, because he never took his shades off.