“I’ll Hurt You If You Stay”: Love’s Vigil in David Cronenberg’s The Fly

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By Jefferson Robbins

fly_posterIt’s an affirmation of love, perhaps the greatest of them, to stand by someone who’s dying, in pain, losing those aspects that constitute a person. Love lets us peer through creeping decay to find the person we hold dear. It’s a hellish road to travel, and the ones we adore can become monstrous to us along the route, but those tests don’t bring our love to a close.

“Is this a romance we’re having?” scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) asks reporter Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) in David Cronenberg’s 1986 adaptation of The Fly. The swooning oboe of Howard Shore’s score answers: the early portion of Cronenberg’s film is very much a romance. Seth and Veronica meet, become partners in Brundle’s stalled teleportation research, and fall in love. Their experience of sex, learning the secrets of the flesh, grants him the key he needs to transport organic matter – living things – from one booth to another across empty space. Love, in its first blooming, opens whole new vistas. What follows is no one’s fault.

Fly1After Brundle’s accidental fusion with a housefly, whose genes slowly overpower his own, the cellos and brass of a fright film enter the soundtrack. His incremental change follows the patterns not only of dissolution by disease, but also of common male responses to a love affair. First, jealousy and the drive to prove himself against romantic rival Stathis Borans (John Getz) send him on his ill-fated teleport journey. Once spliced with the fly’s genome, and reunited with Veronica, he comes to take her for granted and crow over his superiority. He wants to send her through the telepod, to remake her in his image. When FLY embraceshe denies him, his adventure in the nightlife is a macho coping posture – even mutated, he’s still just a guy who picks fights and hits on strange women to get over a broken affair.

Here, the disease metaphor takes the reins. Visiting Seth again weeks later, despite his dissolution, Veronica can’t help but embrace him. She still sees the man inside the ruin, although Seth and Stathis have warned her against contagion. If she’s afraid of such a thing, it doesn’t stop her reaching out – it’s sublimated into fear over her unexpected pregnancy, and the anomalies it might carry. (A glance over at James Cameron’s Aliens reveals 1986 as the year heroines dreamt of monstrous births, and struggled to forestall them.)

FLY final phaseSeth, in his last recognizably-human stage, with portions of himself dropping off left and right, sends Veronica away despite his need for her. How many terminally ill patients have driven their loved ones off, out of shame or a wish to spare them? Learning of her pregnancy, Seth seizes upon it as his last chance to regain life – a false-hope spurt of bargaining, thrust into what should be his acceptance phase in the K├╝bler-Ross model. His final disintegration is his most selfish, violent moment, until he finds that he has only made himself all the more repugnant.

Sometimes, the death vigil leaves us to decide, on behalf of our lovers, when the curtain falls. Malformed unto destruction, Seth pleads for release. Granting it is obviously the worst torment, in a series of torments, that Veronica has had to endure. By pulling the trigger, she’ll wipe out an abomination; she’ll also kill any trace that remains of her beloved. This is essentially the point at which the original film version of The Fly (Kurt Neumann, 1958) commenced – a suicide pact that ends the suffering of a disintegrated man. There, it’s the family unit that’s shattered, with the scientist’s wife and son left behind. In Cronenberg’s version, it’s the hope for a family, the function of adult romantic love, that’s destroyed.

FLY ConclusionThe director rewrote Charles Edward Pogue’s screenplay to build a “love story that develops before your eyes…I really wanted there to be more of a process, more of the excitement of a seduction, of a love affair developing.” And ripening, changing, sharpened by tragedy and loss…like life, with a teleporter, and some horribly-misplaced DNA.

Bio: Jefferson Robbins is a writer and journalist in Washington State. His film reviews and essays have appeared at Film Freak Central, The House Next Door, Threat Quality Press and elsewhere.