Splice

Like a lot of David Cronenberg’s early work, Splice isn’t science fiction so much as science poetry. I’ll warn you up front that I couldn’t possibly care less about whatever technical snafus or plot illogic the movie may or may not have. It hit me hard and deep. It’s a work of sick beauty. Splice concerns itself with a half-human, half-animal genetic hybrid created by two scientists who are also a couple, Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley). Those character names should clue you in that the movie aims more for the pathos of The Bride of Frankenstein than for the action and shock beats of most sci-fi monster mashes. We begin by identifying with Clive and Elsa. It isn’t long before we start identifying with their creation, named “Dren,” who seems like an innocent, girlish creature pulled this way and that by instincts she — and her creators — can’t begin to comprehend.

You notice I use “who” and “she” rather than “that” and “it.” We come to see Dren as a person, albeit a strange one, and when she’s referred to by one scientist or another as “it” — including by Clive and Elsa at certain points — we experience it as an offense. Dren is capable of feeling and thought. She doesn’t speak, but communicates with Scrabble tiles that she is bored with life in the barn where her creators have stashed her away from the world. At first she imprints emotionally on Elsa, then on Clive. Meanwhile, Clive and Elsa argue over her as if she were … a specimen? A pet? Their child? The distinctions blur.

Splice was directed by Vincenzo Natali, who made an indie splash in 1997 with the math-flavored thriller Cube. No less a viewer than David Cronenberg himself called it “as ruthlessly beautiful and compelling as a geometrical theorem.” Well, Splice more closely resembles a genetic theorem, and it’s not just about the genes played with in a lab. Parenting, Splice says, is itself genetic experimentation. Elsa, we learn, had a rough childhood at the hands of a crazy mom who made her sleep in a bare shoebox of a room and denied her any toys. As Dren matures — an accelerated process that eventually makes way for a computer-enhanced Delphine Chanéac, a 31-year-old French actress/model who deals a superb wordless performance — Elsa goes from warmly maternal to coldly maternal. In one of many saddening sequences, Elsa won’t let Dren have a cat she’s befriended; then Elsa relents, and Dren shows her what she thinks of that.

Clive, meanwhile, journeys from wanting to kill Dren to wanting to indulge her lust for him. The scene in question is bizarre and wildly funny, and makes some sort of biological sense: the weird, mutant pheromones she’s throwing off must be extreme, and Dren’s instinct, like any fast-maturing organism who will probably die soon, is to reproduce. Splice is a profoundly strange family-triangle drama that touches a lot of heretofore undiscovered nerves — I felt that this was what the Cronenberg of Shivers and Rabid might’ve done if his DNA were spliced with that of the David Lynch of Eraserhead. Dren has two predecessors, sluglike mounds of flesh named Ginger and Fred, who interact amorously (and, like so much else in the film, absurdly beautifully) until nature changes their dynamic. Katherine Hepburn reportedly once said of the real Ginger and Fred, “He gives her class and she gives him sex appeal.” Vincenzo Natali and Delphine Chanéac give a pulpy premise class and sex appeal, respectively. Though of a very unusual kind.

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