Goethe hated Victor Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris. He told the friend who sent him a copy that he, Goethe, had tried all his life to cultivate a natural sense, a judgment based on Nature. He was not willing to corrupt himself with literature that mixed the beautiful and the ugly. Goethe used this argument more than once (for example, he criticized Kleist with much the same words). He was old, cranky, dismissive of the young—and yet, he had a point.
Dwelling on the impossible and the unbearable—as the tottering sage of Weimar put it—books like Notre-Dame produce a "strange realism," strange, I think, in that it alters one's sense of the real. The tale of Quasimodo and his friends contains no supernatural incidents; all the same, it has seemed to many readers of this extravagant volume that it opens up worlds of morbidity at an alarming rate. By the time we enter the charnel-house of Montfaucon to discover the hunchback's corpse clutching that of Esmeralda the gypsy, Hugo seems to have summed up the spirit of his book.
No doubt is left in our minds that the beautiful and the ugly have finally embraced, nor that this embrace is inextricable. Could Goethe have been practicing a little deception when he claimed that he was above finishing Hugo's novel? Or did he just see where things were going and prudently stop?
Let us pass lightly over the process by which Notre-Dame became a children's classic: it was a common custom in the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries to relegate sado-masochistic fantasies to the nursery, where perhaps they really did belong. (Cf. the odd literary fate of The Arabian Nights.) At all events Notre-Dame survived in the popular imagination, so that when movies took over some of the functions previously performed by novels and theater, Quasimodo's career was prime cinematic material.
There were early French versions in 1906 and 1911. The first American version (The Darling of Paris, 1917) must have been a vehicle for its Esmeralda, Theda Bara. So far as I know, Lon Chaney's 1923 production established the tradition of bravura hunchbacks. Sixteen years later came the magnificent film directed by William Dieterle and starring Charles Laughton as Quasimodo.
Almost everyone of a certain age will remember a few moments from this extraordinary work: Gringoire blundering into the Court of Miracles, where lepers and cripples swarm over him and demand that he pick the pocket of a hanging dummy; Quasimodo swinging down from the cathedral towers on a handy rope, plucking Esmeralda from the scaffold, and swinging up again; the priest-alchemist Frollo (Cedric Hardwicke) staring at Esmeralda (Maureen O'Hara) in frozen lust.
No subsequent Notre-Dame can match Dieterle's, but Hugo's tale has continued to be influential. We have had innumerable Phantoms of the Opera (all drawn from a 1911 novel obviously modelled on the adventures of Quasimodo); we have had King Kong (which cites Perrault's "Beauty and the Beast," also a Hugo favorite, as its inspiration); we have had any number of melancholy monsters hopelessly in love with infinitely desirable maidens; we have even had Sally Cruikshank's bizarre Quasi cartoons.
The tradition often thins out, losing its connection with Notre-Dame. Almost all of the memorable beauty-and-the-beast films owe something to Hugo, however; the clue to this connection is usually a broadening of context, whereby the monster's love for the maiden is clarified, distorted, or somehow mediated through the presence of a huge building.
In Notre-Dame the building is the cathedral; in The Phantom of the Opera it is the Paris Opera House, a monument almost as crucial to nineteenth-century Paris as Notre-Dame to the medieval city; in Kong it is first a cathedral-like cave on the cliffs of a prehistoric world and then, after Kong's removal to New York, the Empire State Building. Most recently it is the shadowy and seemingly infinite loft (presumably in New York) where Jeff Goldblum accidently becomes The Fly.
People who didn't see the 1986 Fly may remember its 1958 predecessor. Here a scientist experimenting with a machine something like the beam-me-up device of Star Trek manages to get into the transport chamber with a fly. After he has been transported, the fly has his body and he the fly's head.
An associate on whom this first Fly had a forming influence tells me that the movie follows the adventures of both hybrids. Eventually the wife of the scientist-fly is forced to defend herself by smashing her husband's disgusting head in a drill-press; at her trial the fly-scientist is hovering around buzzing "help me!" whereupon the judge inadvertently smashes him. This material is silly by any standard except, perhaps, that of an impressionable pre-adolescent male.
David Cronenberg, director of the new Fly, tries for a different atmosphere. Seth Brundle, the scientist (played by Jeff Goldblum, in a universally-praised performance), is a shy but attractive genius, working virtually by himself on the fabled transport machine. Veronica (Geena Davis), an ambitious journalist, discovers his secret. Convinced that she is on to a story that could make her career (careers are very important in this yuppie milieu), she starts spending all her time with Brundle, recording his every move. Soon she is sleeping with him. A hot love affair develops, so that by the time Brundle decides to send himself through the machine the movie has worked up a spirit of obsessive, indeed claustrophobic, eroticism.
After Brundle has been transported he still looks human, but his genes have been synthesized with a fly's. During the remainder of the film, his human form gradually breaks down. He turns into a genuinely monstrous hybrid, Brundlefly . . . not recognizably anything. After weeks of climbing the walls and watching various organs drop off his body (he stores them in the medicine cabinet) while his flesh becomes a kind of sticky, hairy pudding, he finally lets loose.
He wants to use the transport device to merge himself with Veronica and the child that he has conceived. This last experiment goes awry. He becomes more monstrous than ever, blending into a piece of the machinery he originally designed instead of with his beloved. He asks Veronica to shoot him; reluctantly, she complies. We never find out what happens to the child she is carrying.
In my opinion this is not a great film to take your girlfriend to. Nor am I the first to voice such a judgment. Most of the people who wrote about The Fly agreed that it was effective on its own terms. Many choose to question its terms, much as Goethe questioned Hugo's in Notre-Dame.
The case against the movie was put with particular eloquence by Pauline Kael. Kael has made a lifelong point of not being a high-culture snob. She professes to love Brian DePalma's films, most of them anyway. For her, "trash" and "ga-ga stupidity" have often been words of praise. The Fly, however, left her cold. If the movie "has a power, it's simply in our somewhat prurient fixation on watching a man rot until finally he's pleading for a coup de grace." (The New Yorker, 6 October 1986) To put the point another way, The Fly "is extremely literal-minded about physical decay"—as though someone were to rewrite Kafka's "Metamorphosis" by carefully eliminating its allegorical dimension, leaving us with the spectacle of a big, vulnerable bug that eventually dies.
Kael is right to identify this question of subject as central to our evaluation of the movie. Those who praised The Fly tried to say what it was about. Without exception, so far as I know, they chose to focus on specific body processes. Apparently Cronenberg's father had recently died of cancer when he made the film. The Fly was therefore a movie about cancer. Other viewers connected it with AIDS, and others yet with puberty (which makes poor Brundle's experience a grim farce indeed!)
Such explanations seem vaguely right. None of them is completely convincing. After all the sickness theories have been laid out, The Fly still seems to have an interest in ugliness for its own sake. If we tried to make Brundlefly's dilemma into an allegory of cancer, puberty, or AIDS, I think we would have to end by agreeing with Kael: the movie has "no real vision—nothing that lifts it out of the horror-shock category."
Several scenes, however, suggest another approach to The Fly's seeming literalness. During one of Veronica's last visits to Brundlefly's laboratory-loft, he tells her that she should not come back. She is hesitant to take this advice; horrified at his unfolding transformation, she nonetheless wishes to go on seeing him. The reason she should not come back, he continues, is that insects have no politics. This statement is clear enough even if Veronica doesn't quite get the point.
Brundlefly means to suggest that no element of compromise or cooperation is possible for the sort of creature he is rapidly becoming. In one sense he is quite wrong, as demonstrated by Edward Wilson's The Insect Societies, among other volumes. Nonetheless, there remains a traceable gap between the conduct of sticky, segmented, ruthless invertebrates and the conduct of human beings (at least some human beings). Brundlefly insists on the existence of this gap. Who should know better than he, stranded between the two worlds?
His conversation with Veronica is a turning-point, where Cronenberg tips his hand; looking either backwards or forwards, we can apply its thesis without much difficulty. For example, soon after Brundle has become Brundlefly (though well before he realizes what has happened) he develops enormous strength. He can swing around through the loft with superhuman—or subhuman—agility.
Veronica spies on him, sexually excited by his powers. Soon, however, she proves unable to keep up. He raves that going through the transport machine must somehow have purified him; he feels that he is on the verge of a glorious transformation in which flesh (not just sex but flesh) will become both the object and the means of worship. Kael notes of Brundle and Veronica that "they look as if they could produce a race of giants"; "they're like Wagnerian superlovers."
This is Brundle's perception; he wants his mate to be purified along with him so that they can rule the world, etc. Cronenberg does not expect us to sympathize. Flesh-without-politics is almost a definition of Brundlefly's condition, his fly-ness. And after a while we don't admire it much.
Assertions of will-through-strength are invariably repulsive in The Fly. Arm-wrestling with a sexual rival, Brundlefly breaks his arm: we hear the bone crack, then see it rip through the skin, along with bloody muscle-fiber. Defending himself against another sexual rival, Brundlefly (by this time thoroughly aware of all his metamorphosis entails) vomits on the hand, then on the foot of his opponent: the (presumably) acidic juices eat away flesh, then bone. Brundlefly takes a certain joy in his own destructiveness; more intriguing is the suggestion of automatic behavior, to which no human moral categories could apply. Insects have no politics; insects are flesh—pure flesh.
In Notre-Dame, Hugo assures us that Quasimodo's deformity gains value within the articulating space of the cathedral. Gothic architecture not only makes his misshapen body aesthetically explicable, it also provides him with kinds of power vouchsafed no other Parisian. He speaks through the bells (becoming the voice of a city); he defends Esmeralda from a stone fastness which he seems, by his wiles, to animate—and which thus provides him with superhuman strength.
In fact, though Quasimodo appears an outcast, he actually lives at the heart of Gothic culture; in a peculiar way he is its prime beneficiary. When the city finally starts to self-destruct, in a war of classes which anticipates the French Revolution, it is Quasimodo's tragedy which Hugo emphasizes—no wonder, since by this time the hunchback practically is the middle ages.
Notre-Dame is horrifying in an avant-garde romantic mode, yet also exceedingly conservative: an ode of praise to a lost culture which claimed to cure the ills of physical existence by establishing for them a context of theocratic authority. Something of this comes through in most son-of-Quasimodo films, if in no other way than through the focus on architecture; all the same, The Fly is the first beauty-and-the-beast movie to bring to the foreground Hugo's obsession with relations between flesh and civilization.
Cronenberg's neatest twist— though working at the far end of the tradition he may not know it— is to turn Notre-Dame's argument upside-down. No matter how many times Brundlefly moves (stickily) across the ceiling of his loft, he remains incapable of considered action. He snatches Veronica from a doctor about to perform an abortion on her, as Quasimodo snatched Esmeralda from the inquisitors, but then all he can think of is merging with her; bringing her into a family where social links would be replaced by anatomical ones. Brundlefly thinks very literally indeed.
The Fly, on the other hand, is distinguished less by literalness than by its assumption that politics is useful: that it could, perhaps, do for our own world what Hugo thought the cathedral did for the middle ages. Cronenberg has coordinated a sermon against the flesh with a fairly optimistic preachment on human (as opposed to insect) nature. I am not quite sure how prominent he means this double insistence to be; nonetheless, I look forward—shall we say, with reservations—to attending his next film.