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