Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Picked Flick #77: The Brood

David Cronenberg's The Brood debuted in 1979, the same year as Robert Benton's box-office smash and Oscar darling Kramer vs. Kramer. Though his film beat Benton's into theaters by several months, Cronenberg has often cited The Brood as his own horrified rebuke at the domesticated middle-class gauziness of Kramer, having himself recently emerged from a caustic divorce and custody battle. The Brood/Kramer showdown, forever rooted in their own irreconcilable differences, offers as stark a dichotomy as the more infamous Do the Right Thing/Driving Miss Daisy square-off at the end of the following decade: same issue, same medium, different galaxies. And though such is not always the way, the indie films sure come out smelling like roses in these comparisons.

The throbbing knot of angry frustration that so thrillingly crystallizes The Brood—it is by several degrees the most focused and accomplished entry in Cronenberg's pre-Videodrome filmography—is also the explicit subject of the movie, where it is nonetheless aligned with monstrosity and the will to murder. On the one hand, divorced dad Frank Carveth is comfily outfitted with a placid demeanor as well as primary custody of his young daughter Candace. Frank tells Candy's teacher that his wife Nola "married me for my sanity, hoping it would rub off on her," and everything about the film implicitly defends his claim, from Art Hindle's collected performance to the preponderance of screen time afforded him by Cronenberg's script. By contrast, Samantha Eggar's Nola is a raving harpy, an absent mama, and a slave to psycho-clinical trends, having given herself over to the experimental regimen of "Psychoplasmics" founded by Dr. Hal Raglan, an unsettling figure who impersonates his own clients' most bitter antagonists in long role-playing sessions, until the patient's unleashed fury is literalized as nodes, rashes, or pustules on the surface of his or her skin. The Brood doesn't delve deeply into the internal operations or even the grounding logic of the Psychoplasmics enterprise; like the Cathode Ray Mission or the Black Meat factory in later Cronenberg films, this posthuman phenomenon titillates with the idea rather than the mechanics of somatic transformation. It is, however, the conceptual heart of the picture, however shrouded in mystery—a state of affairs that is underlined by The Brood's taut, pervasive emphasis on oblique framings and offscreen space. Cronenberg's contempt for Nola is as clear as his fellow-feeling with her cooler, calmer husband, and yet her operatic rage and her willingness to push her body and mind to new limits of being are what animate the picture, literally yielding its prime agents of horror, and conferring narrative possibility onto the static canvas of the director's own palpable anger. You can't watch The Brood without sensing its exorcising function in the life of its maker. The emotional strata of the film, no less than its tense images and grisly set-pieces, no less than Dr. Raglan's dissertation or Nola Carveth's otherworldly and abject progeny, embody "The Shape of Rage."

So I love The Brood for flaunting its metaphorical referents, yet still complicating the presumed roles of hero and villain with its undisguisable awe at the potency and intricacy of what Nola's ferocity brings into being. Guaranteeing that the movie isn't just Cronenberg's triumph, The Brood is also his first important collaboration with deft cinematographer Mark Irwin, who subtended his career throughout the formative period leading up to and including The Fly. Composer Howard Shore and art director Carol Spier, each holding those jobs for only the second time in their careers, also begin their auspicious and still-evolving teamwork with Cronenberg on this picture. The work of these artists, together with Samantha Eggar's ferocious conviction as Nola and the generally capable performances all around, impart unto The Brood that singular air of a terrific genre exercise that also foreshadows stranger, deeper, and more complicated triumphs lying over the horizon—several of them further up on this list, in fact. It's an exciting film, as regards both aesthetic merit and entertainment value, and it holds up beautifully even in retrospect. Three years after The Brood, Alan Parker's white-hot and perfectly judged drama Shoot the Moon did at least prove that a commercial film with a prestige cast (Albert Finney, Diane Keaton) could peel the skin off the question of divorce, but Cronenberg's foray into the terrain remains seminal. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Blogger tim r said...

Terrific choice. It's the first Cronenberg film that really works. I can't watch Art Hindle without thinking he's been body-snatched (his previous role) which lends the whole thing a further metatextual frisson. Funny, even creepy, how bland the alleged heroes are at this stage of Cronenberg's career. And isn't that score great? It's sort of festering and expectant.

3:05 AM, November 08, 2005  
Blogger qta said...

I LOVE The Brood. What am amazing movie, and a great choice for your list.

5:56 PM, November 08, 2005  

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