Monday, September 21, 2009

Nola, your womb is showing

Where did all these kids come from? Nola!

First, David Cronenberg is a brave man, brave and innovative. Horror can be found in the simplest things and the darkest places. But the most terrible horror is the stuff found in places it shouldn’t be: a daycare, a honeymoon, etc. Cronenberg takes that even further by finding horror in motherhood, in the very act of birth.

The big reveal in "The Brood" is graphic and disturbing. It does two things that horrify the audience. One, it shows where the Brood of children is coming from, and since the audience knows these are viscous little murderers to see the source of this is terrifying. Two, and I don’t know if this was intentional by Cronenberg or not, it reduces the miracle of human birth to something akin to watching a barnyard animal give birth. The way Nola licks placenta and blood off of her latest Brood child is graphic and disturbing, but not because of the gore, because Nola seems less human.

That had to take guts. To not only write this story, but to put it on film. I can imagine the feminist movement was ready to crucify him after this came out. Lots of horror, especially the stories and category being studied this semester, center on fear of the opposite gender. In general the fear is from the male point of view, and in not understanding female sexuality, or being so drawn to that sexuality that they lose control or lash out (Norman Bates from "Psycho," or the poor protagonist in "The Head of Hair").

Cronenberg goes beyond that in "The Brood." To quote a movie I just saw, he “goes all the way through it, to the end.” Nola is presented as the unstable matriarch of a family, and she is sequestered away to get better. Instead of getting better she finds physical form for her rage and lashes out at those she perceives to have hurt her.

The concept is fascinating: emotions finding physical manifestation. Mike, the patient searching for a father, develops lesions and sores all over his visible skin. Jan may or may not have woken up a cancer that is now spreading throughout his body by taking part in psychoplasmics.

But Nola takes the blue ribbon. Nola can actually give birth, breathe life, to her anger. Her rage takes the shape of deformed children who then go and commit physical violence. In William Beard’s “The Artist as Monster, The Cinema of David Cronenberg” Beard states on pages 83 and 84: “Admittedly, Nola is moved by rage, by the wish to hurt and destroy, and this gives her actions an intentionality that Rose’s lack entirely. But then Nola is quite unaware of the terrible acts her brood perform.” Is she?

Beard continues on page 84: “In this sense, the deaths of her parents and of Ruth Mayer are not her fault; she doesn’t even know about them. Even the beating of Candice, which takes place before the action opens, is the result of a passing annoyance in Nola to which the brood overreact, because proportion and judiciousness are exactly what they lack. She is not responsible.” Really?

Beard’s assertion loses a lot of credibility at the end of the movie when Frank is repulsed by Nola’s external womb. When Frank’s revulsion becomes apparent to Nola she tells him she’ll kill Candice. This implies some level of control over the Brood children. It also implies some level of knowledge on Nola’s part about what they do. Also, when Raglan asks Nola how she feels about Candice’s kindergarten teacher, Ruth Mayer, the day after The Brood beats her to death, Nola is all smiles and relaxation. She feels alright about the teacher. She’s moved past it, no big deal.

And this makes sense. The Brood children are less autonomous and more a part of Nola. In that way, a viewer must completely remove Candice from being lumped in with The Brood. Candice is a product of Frank and Nola, hopefully a product of their love. The Brood children are produced by Nola alone, and are a product of her rage. In some ways The Brood children are no more than extra stomach acid or toenails or hair. But they are charged emotionally. When they kill, at least in one example, Nola is relaxed and feels like the problem she so recently had raged about is now taken care of, and it is. Permanently.

So, to completely exonerate Nola of the crimes of The Brood is a bit too polite, too nice. Raglan has some culpability to be sure. His psychoplasmics theories obviously have some truth in them, and he helped Nola develop this external ability to personify her rage. I’m assuming Nola’s external womb and ability to birth Brood children came about at the Somafree institute and not before. Surely Raglan is the one who built the little nursery or camp in which The Brood children live (the rustic look reminded me of summer camp with bunk beds in the woods). Towards the end Raglan is trying to atone for aiding and abetting Nola in creating these little monsters, but he suffers the fate of most mad scientists who busy themselves in mucking with God’s work.

But it all comes back to Nola, doesn’t it? Instead of getting better, it seems the Somafree institute has made her far worse. Dealing with her rage, “pushing all the way through it to the end” isn’t diminishing it, isn’t helping her to deal with it constructively. Far from it. She becomes a murderer using little living guided missiles to do her deeds while she sits in the woods creating new guided missiles that she can launch whenever somebody looks at her wrong.

And that rage? It isn’t going away. She’s still raging as Frank strangles her. Therapy isn’t working for Nola. One wonders what could have been if she could have let go of her anger and yet kept the external womb. Is it possible she could create Brood children who were nice and helpful? Or did the rage itself give her this ability?

Finally this movie can be summed up in one word: bleak. David Cronenberg’s "The Brood" is bleak from start to finish. At no point in the film does a character or any of the interaction between characters provide a smidge of joy or happiness. The setting is cold and harsh, as are the characters. Even family members don’t seem to share any love or warmth around each other. When Juliana is showing pictures to Candice there is one focused on the interior of a hospital room. No one is smiling. For Candice to pick this one as her favorite speaks volumes to the level of sadness and despair this entire family dynamic provides.

Fast forward to the end and Candice is developing physical signs on her arms. Are these the beginnings of her Nola-like abilities? Or just lesions and sores like Mike develops? Candice has almost zero emotional response to anything in the movie save her screaming as The Brood children try to kill her when Nola sics them on her. All that repression will lead to future issues, and the cycle continues. How sad, and I think that was Cronenberg's point.


  1. Wow. Mind meld much? LOL

    On Facebook the other day, when we had our aborted attempt to discuss whether there was a monstrous womb at play in The Brood, I had meant to say that I kept going back and forth on the issue. I'm sure feminists went nuts over this movie - it sure doesn't make women look all that great - but I agree with Beard that Cronenberg does a very nice job spreading the blame around. It's almost a gender role reversal going on, where the women (who, according to gender roles, should be nice and calm) are beating their daughters or creating brood-spawn to kill off enemies. The men (who should be the aggressors) are weak. Raglan is an exception here, but only barely - his aggressiveness is visible only when he's acting the part of an abuser in therapy or when he's telling Frank he has to bring Candy back (when his ego demands Nola be able to continue her "treatment"). When he realizes what's going on with the brood, he rolls over. His fire is gone, and he even looks scared. He doesn't strap on a sack and fix the problem. He allows it to continue, even as people are dying.

    Because of this flip of gender roles, I wondered if Nola's monstrous womb was an actual Monstrous Womb in terms of vilifying female sexuality and birth. I've decided it's there, but Raglan has his own version, and the blame is shared.

    Also, I'm not sure the birth process is the horrific issue so much as the idea of inappropriately expressing bottled rage. Of course, that brings in another question of feminazi style. Is Cronenberg (intentionally or not) sending the message that women are supposed to shut up and be nice - not express any anger or rage or else suffer the consequences? Or is the message cautionary, showing us what can happen if women never express their unladylike emotions until they can't keep them bottled anymore?

    Good post, Dave. Even though we shared a lot of neurons on this, you've prompted me to think some more about the subject. :)

  2. Also, holy crap. Could I have posted a longer comment? Sorry for the hijack. LOL

  3. Bravo. I >like< the meaty comments, and the post was just fantastic. Very thoughtful stuff. Nola and Raglan both seem "out of control" to me...the rage itself has taken over (and Raglan fears the 'monster' he's 'created').

    KLG is raising the question about whether the film naturalizes women's rage, I think. Good question. Cronenberg clearly had some 'issues' with the nuclear family when he made this film, but it is a stunning treatment of the cycle of abuse.