Vincenzo Natali’s new film re-engineers the Cronenberg tradition

Image courtesy of Entertainment One

Apress release for Vincenzo Natali’s Splice quotes Bryan Gliserman, co-president of the Canadian distribution division of E1 Entertainment, as saying that the film—a genetics-gone-awry thriller that saw its North American debut earlier this year at Sundance after being conspicuous by its absence at last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival—will “entertain, delight, and scare Americans.” This is an optimistic assessment, insofar as it supposes that said Americans will have paid good, if rapidly devaluing, currency for the privilege of being entertained, delighted, and scared by a Canadian export. Such a development would invert an old and humbling North American movie-going dynamic, and possibly herald future incursions to come. But the language of confidence is frequently underwritten by anxiety, with a fine line between hope and wishful thinking. So it’s fitting that Splice opens amid the nervous chatter of a delivery room, and from the point of view of something new being brought into the world. Judging from the haz-mat suits worn by the attending physicians, it would seem that this newborn is some kind of unruly specimen.

It’s doubtful 2010 will yield another film as wryly self-allegorical as Splice, a gooey black comedy about a difficult birth overseen by people in power suits. Onscreen, married geneticists Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) perform an end run around their corporate overseers, creating a hybrid creature behind closed doors. Off-screen, the script circulated for years before negotiations between Toronto-based Copperheart Entertainment and the venerable French production house Gaumont yielded a workable creative partnership (with financial assistance from Telefilm Canada), and a budget in the neighbourhood of $30 million.

This figure will likely be cited with some frequency in the run-up to Splice’s June 4 theatrical bow. Canadian journalists were similarly obligated to mention the $20-million budget of Paul Gross’s World War I drama, Passchendaele; in an August 2008 article for Maclean’s, Brian D. Johnson praised writer-director-star Gross for possessing an “ambition that’s rare in Canadian film.” But no combination of fawning magazine pieces, splashy festival premieres (including a TIFF party featuring real tanks) or Genie Awards (six in all) could obscure two facts: that Passchendaele’s $4.4-million domestic box-office haul constituted just a small fraction of its overall cost; and that Gross’s film was a vanity project, the national mythology rewritten in his own stoic image.

Gross returned this spring in Gunless, a broad Wild West comedy made with writer-director William Phillips, whose slickly produced 2003 heist comedy, Foolproof, was conceived as a local alternative to the Ocean’s Eleven franchise. It was also meant to shift paradigms: Ken Eisner of Variety framed Telefilm’s substantial investment in a genre film with homegrown stars (Ryan Reynolds and Kristin Booth) as “the new approach to spending Canadian taxpayers’ dollars—to make money instead of art.” And yet Foolproof did neither, grossing less than half a million dollars, despite a wide release, and garnering lukewarm-to-nasty reviews from critics who knew an indigenous dud when they saw one.

An obsession with box-office grosses may not sound like a Canadian phenomenon, but it’s not hard to draw a causal link between the events of 1999, when then Heritage Minister Sheila Copps challenged Telefilm to increase domestic audience share to 5 percent in exchange for discretionary subsidy dollars, and the recent cycle of would-be crowd-pleasers. TIFF’s associate director of Canadian programming, Steve Gravestock, remembers the moment well, and not fondly. “It skewed things,” he says. “They started reporting grosses on a regular basis in newspapers and other media outlets, which was a crucial development, because it meant the new way to promote a film was to talk about how much it cost and whether it would be comparable technically to [American] studio films.”

That Foolproof really wasn’t that bad didn’t ultimately matter: its mercenary motives were too transparent for an English Canadian film scene that embraces oblique formalists (Atom Egoyan) and trendy punks (Bruce McDonald), with little traction afforded to those tilling the middle ground. (Quebec is, and always has been, a different story, regularly turning out affable genre fare like 2007’s Nitro and the Les Boys series around the discreetly charming bourgeois fables of Denys Arcand). Of all the clichés about our national cinema—the focus on the individual against the landscape, the fetish for weird sex and snowshoes—the most accurate may be that it has always strained under the weight of the documentary realist tradition. The Canadian features widely acknowledged as the most seminal—films like Don Owen’s Nobody Waved Good-bye (1964) and Don Shebib’s Goin’ Down the Road (1970)—began their lives as documentary projects at the National Film Board, for decades the only (paying) game in town. The ragged, on-the-fly style of those films betrayed the circumstances of their production and, more out of coincidence than determined homage, lined up with certain tendencies of European art house filmmaking, cementing Canada as a nation full of auteurs but lacking in craftsmen.

Deftly photographed by Japanese cinematographer Tetsuo Nagata in deep blacks and institutional blues—and featuring ingenious visual effects by the Toronto animation studio CORE Digital Pictures, working in tandem with the French FX houses BUF and Mac Guff—Splice has craft to spare. But there’s also enough evidence of a personal vision to link it to a national auteur tradition, differentiate it from the residents of Canadian commercial cinema’s white elephant graveyard, and elevate it above the faceless genre fare it will compete with when it is released in the United States by Joel Silver’s Dark Castle Entertainment, whose 2009 slate included such choice fare as Ninja Assassin and Orphan. The US is, and always has been, a monolith looming over the world’s other national cinemas, but its relationship to English Canadian films is particularly fraught, thanks to the double bind of linguistic continuity. While it is in some ways easier for Canadian productions to slip into the US distribution stream, due to their lack of subtitles, the absence of any clear exotic signifiers—like the faux-Franco critique that fooled North American critics into canonizing Hollywood hand (and Splice executive producer) Guillermo del Toro’s creature feature Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)—can lead to a kind of anonymity. Ditto the absence of any recognizable American stars.

The casting of Splice’s lead roles addresses this problem rather cannily, with Polley on hand to provide CanCon cred. She also matches up nicely with Brody; gaunt and deglammed, they’re both credible nerds. And they’re not the only ones: Natali has crammed the film with movie in-jokes. The protagonists’ names reference Colin Clive and Elsa Lanchester of James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935), while two of their creations are dubbed Ginger and Fred (a gag that pays off during a bloody public pas de deux). But the movie sweethearts that most immediately come to mind are the tragic lovers played by the similarly off-Hollywood duo of Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis in David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly, another Toronto-filmed story of science gone wrong and Splice’s most obvious spiritual progenitor. The difference is that Polley and Brody are both playing the Goldblum role: the obsessed geek who becomes the least stable variable in an out-of-control experiment.

In the ever-widening field of Cronenberg Studies, The Fly is not generally considered the director’s first masterpiece: that would be Videodrome (1983), which filtered Baudrillard and Blondie through Baby Blue Movies en route to becoming one of the decade’s iconic science fiction movies. But The Fly was a commercial breakthrough, grossing more than $40 million in North America and turning a director denounced by Robert Fulford in Saturday Night for crimes against the Canadian film industry into the country’s most acclaimed film artist.

Certainly, Cronenberg is a consummate showman: the famous exploding head in Scanners (1981) set the tone for three decades of gory showstoppers. Think of James Woods probing his guts with a pistol in Videodrome, or Jeff Goldblum pulping John Getz’s hand in The Fly; of Geneviève Bujold making a midnight snack of her lover’s tumour in Dead Ringers, or Viggo Mortensen knifing a rival through the eye on the bathhouse floor in Eastern Promises (2007). These moments stand out because of Cronenberg’s authentic genius for the visceral, but also because, as a director, he relies heavily on stand-alone set pieces. His films tend to live in the rear-view as highlight reels rather than fully realized narratives; even ace mood pieces like Dead Ringers (1988) and Crash (1996) have their dead zones. And the exceptions, like A History of Violence (2005), aren’t so much triumphs of narrative as sly deconstructions of same. In that extravagantly praised film, Cronenberg commits to the retired gunslinger story only insofar as he can subvert it. It’s telling that Canada’s pre-eminent narrative filmmaker isn’t really much of a storyteller.

Cronenberg, who had orbited Toronto’s experimental film scene as a student in the late ’60s, was the most rabid talent to emerge during the “tax shelter years,” when the introduction of a scheme that allowed investors to deduct financial contributions to Canadian productions led to a mini-boom of lowdown genre films. He was also the most resourceful. In the recently released anthology Toronto on Film, the Toronto Star’s Geoff Pevere writes that “while hardly commercial by nature, [Cronenberg] could at least exploit the market appetite for commercial genres like horror and science fiction while pursuing his own intellectual interests.” This was great news for a subsequent generation of idiosyncratic Canadian directors who, as Pevere puts it, were “as motivated by their resistance to the generic commercialism of many tax-shelter productions as they were by Cronenberg’s creative engineering of that system.”

Which leads to a paradox: the most important Canadian director to emerge within the strictures of genre cinema ends up spearheading a movement leading in the opposite direction. Pevere implies that Cronenberg’s true inheritors were writer-directors like Atom Egoyan and Patricia Rozema, who followed his example but eschewed generic forms in favour of a more modernist style. But Natali’s career suggests another, more specific strain of influence. Opening with a scene in which a character is unexpectedly julienned in a booby-trapped hallway, Cube (1997) flaunted tax shelter aesthetics, with hapless actors scuttling through drab interiors in between carefully timed gross-outs—the same formula that had greased Cronenberg’s rise to prominence. Dodgy CGI effects aside, the film feels like a holdover from another era, even though it was produced under the auspices of the Canadian Film Centre’s First Feature Project—precisely the sort of filmmaking infrastructure unavailable in the 1960s and ’70s.

Natali’s accomplishment in making a credible lo-fi thriller on a shoestring budget within the belly of a bureaucratic beast was considerable, but he’s dwarfed it with Splice, whose quality reflects both the director’s increased resources and his maturing sensibility. There’s an insularity to the proceedings that is very Canadian, with no major speaking characters besides Clive and Elsa and their ever-mutating creation “Dren” (that’s “nerd” backwards), and an extended climax set at the sort of dilapidated farmhouse that is de rigueur in Canadian drama. This sparseness is not inadvertent, however. Natali has called Splice a “family film,” and indeed it derives much of its power from the ways in which it hones in on—and then rudely warps—those dynamics.

“I don’t think an American director could have made this movie,” whispered my viewing companion about two-thirds of the way through the film, during what has to be the freakiest sex scene in recent Canadian cinema (and that’s not a short list). If Natali’s nerds-against-the-system set-up is knowing self-allegory, the final passages play as a fugue of mutation, describing a beast that has exceeded even its creator’s wildest and most anxious expectations. It’s almost to Natali’s credit that the film finally gets away from him in the end, following a Freudian trajectory well past the boundaries of good—or commercially savvy—taste. What binds Splice to Cronenberg, besides its occasionally clumsy storytelling, is the feeling of a filmmaker straining to negotiate personal vision in a popular form. It’s something that was absent in Foolproof, which succeeded too well in its attempt at facelessness; and all too present in Passchendaele, with its self-congratulatory repertoire of director-star close-ups.

There are some who will classify Splice as mere Cronenbergian afterbirth—or worse, as a simple clone—but it’s very much its own creature. The questions of whether it will prove adaptable to a difficult environment, or perhaps force the industrial ecosystem to change around it, are as inevitable as they are unfair. “There is an unbearable burden on [certain films] to change the way the industry works,” says Gravestock. “You can’t have that with one film—you need fifteen or twenty.” Given that there haven’t been twenty comparably sized productions in Canada’s short feature filmmaking history, Splice’s potential success or failure will have to be analyzed as an isolated case study. Hopefully, the observers will note the subject was healthy on delivery.

This appeared in the June 2010 issue.

Adam Nayman
Adam Nayman is a contributing editor for Cinema Scope. He has also contributed to the Globe and Mail, the National Post, and Cineaste.