It’s hard to deny that a palpable misogyny suffuses The Brood, and director David Cronenberg’s post-divorce fractured attitude toward main character Nola (Samantha Egger) does malignantly spread throughout the film. But as the nexus between Cronenberg’s bodily, corporeal grindhouse films from the ’70s and his more cerebral psychoanalytic studies, The Brood is a more troubled affair. For one, this tale of marital fallout is calibrated for a tenebrous blamelessness, with Cronenberg’s austere style vacillating between perspectives to reform our preconceptions of which parent is truly justified in this atomic deconstruction of the essentially self-sabotaging nature of the nuclear family.
A balance that already elevates the film in the canon above the misogynistic and stylistically arid, shallow Oscarbait picture Kramer Vs. Kramer, the anemic Best Picture winner from the same year that Cronenberg more or less explicitly adopted as his bete noire in the Euro-chill haunt of The Brood. In his film, husband Frank (Art Hindle) becomes worrisome when his daughter Candy (Cindy Hinds) returns from her weekend ventures to mother’s house with bruises, presumably corporeal manifestations of therapist Dr. Raglan’s (Oliver Reed) bizarrely corporeal belief in coping with trauma via exhuming it from the body through physical lesions.
Or some such nonsense, no doubt Cronenberg’s astringent, acidic critique of the voluminous, increasingly prismatic and unrestrained psychoanalysis bubbling through the landscape throughout the 1970s as a mechanism of coping with not only interpersonal strife but a North America continually slumped over in distress. Reed’s crazed, perspiring performance is certainly corroborating evidence to the claim that the real villain for most of the piece is an institution, not a person. The performance is also a notable example of Cronenberg’s understanding of oppressive, often subcutaneous masculine virility, with Reed’s embodied performance a grisly reminder of the duress men thrust on women to snap into hysteria. Elsewhere, the depiction of the passive, blasé Frank – a Cronenberg stand-in – complicates the pervasive contempt for Nola, emasculating Frank – and Cronenberg – and the notion of male assertiveness in cinema.
Still, this is no feminist tract – not by a long shot – as, whatever obtuse institutional dogma spit out by the good bad doctor, Nola’s body and psyche are rather interminably heretical, cosmic portals of inchoate terror. The tone is less blame-spewing than observational, though, with Nola’s torment at the indefatigable lynching noose of marriage vastly more affecting and sympathetic than Frank’s mostly pedestrian desire to distance himself from his wife. Ultimately, the gender-typing is less “man good, woman bad” than “man disembodied, woman embodied”. Only Nola is capable of confronting her emotions, although the particular emotions in this case are torment and panic that materialize in blood red strokes.
That the particulars of the marital relationship prior to its destruction are unstated is itself a skewer to our conception of empathy; rather than either individual member of the couple being clouded with doubt and enmity, the “blame”, so to speak, is primarily the institutional vulture circle that is marriage itself. The way that neither partner occupies the same physical space or screen real estate until the denouement intones the irony of an institution founded on communication begetting only sequestered, individualized perspectives.
With The Brood, Cronenberg’s perturbed male curiosity about the nether realms of the female form serves as the tipping point into his lifelong testing of the tumultuous nebula intertwining the body and the mind. Almost all of his future films, including his masterpiece The Fly, are fraught with various mental states externalized in the malformation of the human body. Cronenberg tacitly suggests that the mental is a breeding ground for the physical, that the latter is malleable and dialectically engaged with the consciousness rather than recalcitrant to it. Samantha Egger’s full-bodied, frenzied performance seals the deal, personifying a film that, ironically considering the subject matter, marries the rough-hewn Grand Guignol of Cronenberg’s growing days as a filmmaker and the psychologically tenebrous, exploratory works of his more fully formed adult self. He’s obviously working out his own personal demons, but the capricious blood-letting on display in the film’s jolts of exploitation-crazed violence bodily exert control of the film with a mix of maddened glee and baleful melancholia. Cronenberg would evolve as a formalist after The Brood, but the uncanny contrasts of personality-less, domestic interiors and barren, nightmarish exteriors nicely formalizes the conglomerate of the everyday and the feral.
The Brood still has the mettle of Cronenberg finding himself rather than Cronenberg found, but the heady complications speak for themselves. Kramer Vs Kramer dryly, aridly reduces contestation to the timid realm of the singular individual and thereby leaves the institution of marriage itself in an untested, sacrosanct realm, preserving the body by destroying only the individual malignancies. The provocative Brood proposes a sepulcher of predetermined gloom implying that an institution’s foibles cannot be individualized or written off as the fault of its vestigial human structures. In The Brood, the essence, the core, the body of the marriage itself is in a dialectical tension that cannot be exonerated.