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'Splice' Movie Commentary: The Effects of an Unusual Sex Scene

Adrien Brody, Delphine Chaneac, Splice
Delphine Chanéac, Adrien Brody, Splice

Splice, the new film by Canadian director Vincenzo Natali, is a revitalizing standout in the long-suffering genre of sci-fi/horror. Instead of veering into predictable B-movie, torture-porn tendencies, Splice is a serious, insightful commentary on scientific and human ethics. It is also self-effacing, ghoulishly funny, and fearless in its willingness to be shocking and thought-provoking without insulting its audience.

Having said that, there are ten minutes in which the film walk this fine line without falling over the edge: a sex scene between Clive (Adrien Brody) and Dren (Delphine Chanéac), a humanoid clone. This particular scene caused a raucous uproar among viewers when I saw it in the theater, a reaction which I believed was both inappropriate and illuminating.

Some brief background before delving into this infamous scene: Dren is the creation of Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clive (Mr. Brody), who are scientific partners as well as lovers. An experiment in mixing human and animal DNA to create a kind of amphibious-avian hybrid, Dren also has the ability to rapidly age; as a result, she has all of the features of a fully developed female midway through the film.

Needless to say, despite (or perhaps, because) of her strange, alien characteristics, which include a bald head, a tail, and wings, she is exotically beautiful. Apparently in her late-teenage stage, Dren has been crushing on Clive, drawing and hiding pictures of him, etc. Likewise, Clive has begun to show kindness and a hint of playful, innocent flirtatiousness towards Dren, especially after Elsa's maternal nature is gradually replaced by calculating, cold cruelty.

This pre-existing sexual tension between Clive and the blossoming Dren, as it culminates with Elsa's increasing heartlessness, peaks when Dren and Clive are alone in a barn. The seduction and sex which follows is in no way violent or cheaply graphic. Aside from the obvious fact that Clive is betraying Elsa, his lovemaking with Dren is actually quite innocent.

Although Clive is clearly reluctant, he also feels the need, perhaps out of guilt, to show Dren, who has a tragically short life span, the pleasures of a sexual experience. A more apparent interpretation which proves that this sexual encounter is more than a grade B movie spectacle is that it unearths deep, intricate aspects of Clive's character.

Throughout the film, it is suggested that Clive is “the submissive” and Elsa “the dominant” in their relationship, a dynamic which may hint that although he is an accomplished scientist, Clive still worries that he is nothing more than an overgrown nerd. Thus, his impulsive, impassioned sex with Dren makes him feel empowered and sexy (perhaps for the first time in his life), while also being an ideal and intimate scientific discovery.

It is understandably awkward when watching any sex scene in a movie theater. But when the audience collectively laughed, groaned, and shouted “That's so fucked up, man!” during this scene – a scene which reveals so much about the complexities of human desire – my theater-going experience was essentially ruined. Their reactions made me more uncomfortable than the sex itself.

As previously stated, the scene was not kinky at all; yet, in a matter of minutes, I felt very low, even ashamed, like I was sitting in an adult theater watching some X-rated detritus of a film. This furor went on for so long, even after the scene was over, that I seriously considered walking out and waiting for the DVD release.

I feared this audience uproar had tainted the film for me; that they had stripped Splice of its artistic, at times inspired, intentions, and I would always associate the film with the petty, tactless reactions of these spectators.

Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, Brokeback MountainJake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain

This unpleasant incident was uncannily similar to what happened when I saw Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain. It is of consequence to mention that I saw Lee's film in a much smaller theater in a distinctly liberal town in upstate New York.

The viewing was going well, even through the jarringly rough sex scene between Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in the first half of the film. Oddly enough, the moment which provoked the unseemly audience reaction involved no gay sex. Rather, it was when Ennis (Mr. Ledger) and Jack (Mr. Gyllenhaal) are reunited after years apart and share a spontaneous, fervent kiss, which Ennis' wife, Alma (Michelle Williams), espies through her kitchen window.

Even in a theater filled with what I would venture to call hippies, this agonizing moment of realization, so poignantly expressed through the horrified shock on Ms. Williams' face, was littered with chuckles, obscenities, and exclamations like, “BUSTED!!"

As during “Splice,” I was both disgusted and upset by these crude responses, perhaps even more so because of the latent homophobia it revealed in a so-called “progressive” audience. Yes, both the kiss and its subsequent exposure to Alma's unassuming eyes was unexpected, but it would have been a relief to hear gasps of shock and surprise rather than hoots and giggles. It reduced an emotional turning point in the film into a shallow and primitive “gotcha!” moment.

After much debate over my second experience with a rude and rowdy audience during Splice, I decided it was not fair to judge them. When we are unsure how to react to certain situations, such as scenes in a film, our discomfort may indicate that some aspect of the film evoked something in us we're afraid or embarrassed to confront or acknowledge. I am in no way suggesting that the people who snickered during Brokeback Mountain are still in the closet; nor do I believe that the boorish crowd in Splice had a secret fantasy to make love with a humanoid, though beautiful, clone. (Although the males who were hollering were perhaps trying to conceal the fact that they were pretty aroused themselves.)

What I do believe is that when moments in film, or any artistic medium, instill discomfort within the viewer, that it says something about the quality, intellect, and imaginative power of the work of art.

It is not news that films that evoke a strong emotional reaction from the audience are necessarily either catastrophically offensive or artistically provocative. But I think that Splice, for its science-fiction-turned-reality premise, along with Brokeback Mountain's redefinition of the cinematic love story, definitely fall into the latter category.

So, theatergoers, I encourage you to react. Let it out – your hollers, guffaws, everything. It will give me something to rant about. More importantly, it will let me know whether the film is breathtakingly bad, ingeniously inspired, or striving to uncover some suppressed aspect of ourselves by stimulating emotions we have yet to feel.

© Vanessa Graniello

Vanessa Graniello is an Alt Film Guide contributor.

A version of this essay was first published at The Moving Arts.

Photos: Brokeback Mountain (Kimberley French / Focus Features); Splice (Warner Bros.)

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11 Comments to 'Splice' Movie Commentary: The Effects of an Unusual Sex Scene

  1. Anonymous

    Daniel,

    First of all, you write very well. Rarely are comments stimulating enough to make me want to continue reading past the first paragraph but your experience of what you read and the way you critiqued it caused me to want to read the rest. It was in the second paragraph, however, that you do something as harsh to the writer, and really the world, as you felt was done to you.

    I believe Vanessa is entitled the creative liberty to share her opinion based on her own experience, values etc. Just as if you were to write an article about Brokeback Mountain, you might be persuaded to focus on certain points over others based on the bias of your beliefs (in your case the fact that you are “against” homosexuality). I personally took offense to your OPINION in that you are against something I am not against. And I hardly see the use in playing semantics when it comes to justifying the difference between a “phobic” and a person who judges other ways of life as “unnatural.”

    Homosexuality aside, I believe the writer chose the examples she did in order to make a powerful point: that an audience's inability to take certain scenes seriously could possibly reveal something about what they desire, what they repress, and what they are feeling on a subconscious level- a level that lives below the experiences of everyday life- a level that, for some, can only be accessed in the presence of great art, moving films, and “disturbing” sex scenes. That is after all why we go to the movies isn't it? We want to be moved. We want to laugh. We want to be surprised and thrilled and taken somewhere wild.

    Please keep the heart in mind when you abuse your intelligence. You are a good writer. I look forward to reading more of your opinions in the future.

  2. altfilmguide

    “Homophobia is the irrational, intense, and persistent fear of homosexuals. It does not apply to religious people who view homosexuality as a sin.”

    That isn't quite right.

    From Merriam-Webster's online dictionary:

    Homophobia - “irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals”

    In other words, homophobia can be (and in fact is) a synonym for anti-gay bigotry. Those who use holy books to justify their prejudices aren't exempt from that, as gays who have been — and continue to be — victims of religious-based bigotry (or homophobia) can attest. Ms. Graniello used the word — without any inference to religion in her text — in the appropriate manner.

  3. Daniel

    Vanessa,

    First, you write very well. It's a two-page essay and most people never click to continue the second page, but your experience and the way you describe it caused me to want to hear the rest. It was on this second page, however, that you do something as harsh to those in the theatre, and really the world, as you felt was done to you.

    Phobias are illnesses. The exact definition is that it is an irrational, intense, and persistent fear. You have used this word, though, as if it were a simple label you apply to anyone who has a view other than your own concerning homosexuality. I am personally against homosexuality, but that does not make me homophobic. The responses you listed are more a matter of maturity that anything else: A) for talking during a movie, and B) for shouting out things like, “Busted!”, as opposed to your listed reactions such as shock or gasping.

    Homophobia is the irrational, intense, and persistent fear of homosexuals. It does not apply to religious people who view homosexuality as a sin. It does not apply to people who simply think it is not the natural order of things. It does, howeve, apply to people who would want to avoid homosexuals at all cost, such as quitting a job, finding a new way to get to a location so you can avoid a person on your path who is a homosexual, and avoiding conversations with anyone who professes to be a homosexual. It would also apply to those who make aggressive actions or comments against homosexuals, such as threats of death, assault, or slander. For everyone else, it is simply a different opinion, not a phobia.

    Please keep definitions in mind when you use words, especially when you use strong words. You are a good writer. I hope to read more of your opinions in the future.

  4. Jazz

    Hi guys, I don't understand what the big uproar over the sex scene was about. Splice was an incredible film, and the fact that everyone is making a big deal over it is confusing me, so I just want to speak my mind on this issue.

    First off, I just want to put it straight out there. Dren is beautiful and attractive, even though she isn't human. Clive is shown to have a beautiful woman (basically) naked in front of him, she is attracted to him, he is attracted to her, and POW- Sex happens. Okay, so Dren is hot- first point.

    Secondly, people are saying she basically had sex with her father. That is stupid, none of clive's DNA makes up her genetic structure. To put the correct label on it, she just had sex with her mother's boyfriend, and we see that situation in many, many other films. The only difference is that they are of different species? Well, we mate several things that are not of the same species to bring us new species of DOGS AND CATS. Seriously, why is everyone getting worked up over this? People who are, just calm the fuck down, and think about what you are saying and have a broader view on it.

    P.S- The people who say 'oh thats disgusting, they aren't the same species ewww' most likely have watched it with a family member or friends, for most people don't admit that the sex scene is really erotic which I beleive it is.

    In conclusion, poeple who are saying that the sex scene was unneccesary I think you are majorly wrong. I think the scene was needed. Maybe the directors shouldn't have been so explicit with the way they showed it, or maybe they should have only IMPLIED that it happened, so that they wouldn't get all this garbage from immature people who cannot handle the idea of two different species mating with one another in a loving way.

  5. Durlick

    I agree with you, Sam. I probably would have done the same. I thought the scene was done tastefully and it was beautiful to watch. At the end when she showed animal characteristics it was because she sensed Elsa before they actually showed her being there. Elsa had just stripped her naked, strapped all her limbs to a cold metal table and cut off her tail without anything to numb the pain. By Dren's own nature, yes she possess human characteristics, but she is very much an animal. As someone mentioned earlier about her not being exposed to the world, she relies strongly on her instincts. Besides her being very angry with Elsa for having maimed her, she then interrupts her making love to Clive. So I really don't think she pulled out her stinger in reaction to Clive, but it was in fact a reaction to Elsa's presence.

  6. Sam

    I agree, there was no graphic nature in the sex scene, it was actually quite majestic and meaningful. Also I didn't watch it with am audience so I had my sole opinion and I really liked the scene, it displayed a truth that people have very complex and mixed emotions. However I am a very unique individual and actually felt comfortable during the scene, mainly because I probably would have done the same. But at the end Dren showed similar characteristics to spiders or scorpions with her stinger, however I refuse to believe she would have actually killed Clive.

  7. nickytailor

    hi all,

    i think all of us reflected our fears in that scene in our concerns, in any or other way. Abt virginity, the ethics of scientist, laws, rapes, sex in teenagers, etc. That is why was so polemic. My fear here was that a husband felt attracted for an exotic woman, that means cheat a wife, and the way he could hurt her after surprised them in the act !

  8. matt

    oh my,
    you felt disturbed by an audience that did not appreciate sex between a human and half an animal?
    ever heard of unwarranted self-importance?
    btw, kudos for that argument of yours, she's gonna die soon and needs to be shown sexual pleasure.
    I will remember that next time I read about (male) nurses raping terminally ill children :)

  9. A Concerned Dispeller of Myths about Sex

    Honestly I imagine the uproar of the general populous was probably because of the fact that this girl is in many ways still a child and Clive an adult. If she has such a short life span, she has only been around a very short time, so in the eyes of the public she is very much a child. Even if she were a teenager in our years, she still looks to be only about 16, and Clive in his mid 30's to very early 40's. That sort of thing is illegal in most states. Even in states where the legal age of sexual consent is 16, that still only pertains when the child's partner is under five years his or her senior. I fancy that the sex scene was technically statutory rape had a lot to do with the general response of disgust. In addition to that, Clive is… well. Kind of like her father. Adds another layer of potential nasty, depending entirely upon how you interpret it.

    Also… Film Book dot com person… virginity and hymen are irrelevant to Clive “sliding into her vagina with ease” as you said, and her lack of discomfort. A hymen is not actually a blockage of the vagina, just a rim around the opening so to speak (so Clive would have met no resistance even if she was a virgin). It doesn't always rip during sex and, if a young women leads an active lifestyle, even if she only runs, it's very likely the hymen will tear during physical activity that is entirely unrelated to sex, if it tears at all. In addition to the general myths about hymens, it sounds like Dren was held away from society, and is generally more animalistic than most humans due to not only her lack of exposure to media and social stigma, but due to her genetics and upbringing as well. Therefore she would not have many of the preconceived notions and stigmas that society places on a young girl's virginity. Most of the time, sex hurts a girl for the first time because she's not ready, she's too scared, she feels dirty, or her partner really sucks at foreplay. Very often it hurts girls after the first time for the very same reason. I actually decided to write this review because of you - your preconceived notions about virginity are so off-base I had to say something.

    If you question my credibility, I studied human sexuality in college, I teach it to small groups of adolescents at my place of employment and am on a healthy sexuality task force.

  10. Becca Scales

    Talk about an over reaction. I would hardly say it was worthy of almost walking out and being ashamed of yourself. My god, get a life you prude!

  11. I hate that phrase: torture porn. If anything “torture horror” is a more appropriate term but I digress. Maybe the new Splat Pack documentary will clear this up.

    One of my immediate reactions to the sex scene in question was does Dren have a hymen and is she a virgin? Clive enters her vagina with absolute ease and Dren shows nor seems to feel any discomfort for her first time.

    The director of this film did exactly what I would have done with his film, the same as Rob Zombie did with scenes in The Devil's Rejects. He listened to the voice in the back of his head. He zagged. He did the unexpected and it paid off.

    “Clive still worries that he is nothing more than an overgrown nerd. Thus, his impulsive, impassioned sex with Dren makes him feel empowered and sexy (perhaps for the first time in his life)”

    I never thought of that, that is was an act of rebellion. Nice observation.

    My Splice Movie Review:
    http://film-book.com/film-review-splice/