“I love you,” he says. The air catches in my throat, feeling suddenly thick and leaden. It’s our third date...I look across the table, panic washing over me. It’s that same visceral panic that burbles from deep inside your chest upon discovering the food left in a neglected tupperware has transformed into something other—green, fuzzy, repulsive—turning hunger into nausea mixed with a vague sense of betrayal. Logically, I didn’t see him again, instead opting for quietly blocking his number and pretending the date never happened.
Sadly I didn’t have the opportunity to date in 1986 (even my parents weren’t yet together) but my supposition is that the idea of a “red flag” didn’t spontaneously arrive with the advent of Tinder, OkCupid!, and Whatever Other Dating Innovation You’re Into. I’d say it was probably a lot easier in 1986 to avoid a redflag-lover -- just like break your pager or something...right? So it’s for these reasons that, for me, beyond integrated genes, superhuman vomit, and the idea of losing humanity itself, the most disconcerting piece of David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly is how Geena Davis’ character, Veronica Quaife, seems totally on board with the red flag factory that Seth Brundle has cooked up in his lab. Be afraid, Ronnie, be very, very afraid.
Flashing back in time, we meet Andre Delambre, a man who loves scientific discovery almost as much as he loves his family. Although we know we’re meant to witness some mind blowing experimentation, the film is paced in such a way where we get to really know the Delambre’s and how much they love one another. The whole Man Turns Into a Fly business serves only as a punchline to bolster a more tender, complex love story. The simplicity and pureness of their relationship isn’t necessarily contrasted by what goes on in Andre’s lab, rather it’s made all the more potent. Helene is faced with an impossible task: she must harm the body of her husband to preserve the quality of his life and protect the world from a potentially terrifying invention. I appreciate how well she’s written despite the societal norms of the time. She struggles, makes compromises, and cares for her husband despite his transformation and the literal disappearance of his humanity.
Cronenberg will always have a very special, strange place in my heart, and I think The Fly is a great movie that I’m never upset to revisit. But this is a game of comparisons and the issue is that while the 1986 film does a phenomenal job of making the viewers feel icky and look away, it would have so much more of a long-lasting impression if there was some emotional hook to Seth’s mutation. For Andre, he not only becomes a fly, but also a noble superhero-type. He wants to preserve the safety of his family, he knows as the transformation continues, he’ll no longer be able to control the violent outbursts of his fly-half. He shows us the gravity of his telepods getting into the wrong hands in such a minimal, yet strong way. Seth begins as a self absorbed, fast talking, insect-like man, and then dies that way. I can’t believe in Ronnie’s love for him (beyond perhaps his ability in The Sack) and never is there even a blip of a moment that makes me want Seth to be okay. I found myself wanting to smack Ronnie and tell her to get her shit together, run away, and leave Brundle.
Being no stranger to men turning into insects, a lot of my interest in both of these films stems from a love of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Less preoccupied with working out the scientific mechanics, Kafka focuses on his sparse set of characters through the lens of very real human emotion. While the story is totally absurd, sickening, and even alienating, it still frames the change as one that puts shifting identity, feelings of loss, and testing the limits of unconditional love on the surface—making the whole story one we can understand despite lack of experience in the whole changing-into-an-insect department. Again, this is what 1986’s The Fly fails to do and what the 1958 version is closer to accomplishing. Seth Brundle’s transformation is physically epic, and visually stunning, but its lack of emotion and contrast dilutes the point, for me. There is merit in visceral gross-out, and no one does it quite like Cronenberg, but this is a rare moment where I wish he would have indulged less in the physicality of the movie and more in the nuances of Seth and Ronnie’s partnership.
Great stuff, Cait. I know Cronenberg has resisted defining his Fly as an "AIDS movie," but I'm wondering if that sense of "sex and love as body horror" is what makes their relationship a bit more alien and less emotional? We track Seth's decomposure through Ronnie's POV and spend a lot of time worrying about what he "left behind" in her. Lots of focus on the icky-sticky of it all. I definitely find myself wondering the same thing you do, though. It feels like they had a one-nighter and just kind of kept forcing themselves into awkward breakfasts.ReplyDelete
I can definitely be down into that reading of the movie, it's a shame he wasn't into that idea.Delete
My boyfriend and I often joke that Cronenberg has just like, never engaged in human sex so that's why everything he makes seems so foreign and awkward. I know it's not the best thing to do, but I have a hard time not lumping together/comparing instances of intimacy in his other movies with this one. Like the weirdness of sex/bodies makes sense in things like eXistenZ and Videodrome because they fit the concepts and seem much more aware of themselves and the worlds they're playing in. This is the one time it seems weird in a clunky way and not one that adds to the idea.
Superb column, it hard to come up with a clever comment when you said it all, nice job, I need to see the original again with your thoughts in mindReplyDelete
I wouldn't sell Veronica's character short. At first she's really just interested in Seth's groundbreaking device, then a romance blooms out of that. For all intents and purposes she should run and hide after his transformation, but I believe she simply wanted to save a dying man from something horrible. It's not necessarily love, but more so a strong empathy for another person. You're not wrong at all though, I just think the motives may be a bit different. I should check out the original film, they sound much more different then I expected.ReplyDelete
This is a great article Cait - thank you! I had never thought of Ronnie's and Seth's realtionship in those terms. I love Cronenburg, and I agree with everything you said, but it's that icky, dangerous, self aware dangerous and aloof elements that draw me in everytime. I even like the fact that The Fly holds you at arms length, but Davis brings this warmth that I doubt was ever on the page. If Davis was not in Ronnie's role, I think this would be a more clinical and body horror movie, for me at least. Did I just contradict myself like 3 times?ReplyDelete
But I say all this without actually having seen the orginal. I know I will pack my bags and head off now. But I love The Fly, I loved your article and now I will go and watch the orginal.