While the Frist Center does its fair share of film programming, I'd always like to see more. That said, their pairing up with the Nashville Film Festival for the “Unexpected Tales” Film Series is a great example of how they currently match movies to the content in their galleries. The “Unexpected” series speaks to the Frist's Fairy Tales, Monsters and the Genetic Imagination exhibition, and tonight's twofer includes a film that dovetails so nicely with the show that by the time the closing credits are rolling, you'll feel like it's a direct extension.
Tonight's first unexpected tale is "Birdboy." An award-winning animated short from Spain, the film takes place in a remote woods where a village of small mice, rabbits and other cuddly creatures live, work and go to school. Dinki is a little girl mouse who loses her father in a traumatic accident that unexpectedly transforms the film into a post-apocalyptic drama. As she literally begins to disappear behind a mask of grief, Dinki's last hope lies with the titular hero: an eccentric dreamer who believes that he can fly.
This gorgeous little movie is full of graceful, poetic imagery and — while it's no Grave of the Fireflies — its dark, melancholy proceedings earn it a dramatic air that many live action movies fail to conjure. Directed by Pedro Rivero, "Birdboy" won a 2012 Goya Award (the Spanish equivalent of an Oscar) for Best Spanish Short Animated Film.
Clive (Brody) and Elsa (Polley) are the rebel scientists here, but they're also proud parents of a chimeric brood that includes creatures that look like large, good-natured maggots that have been genetically engineered to produce medicine for livestock. The experiments are going so well that Clive and Elsa want to attempt an advanced gene-splicing technique, introducing human DNA into their monster-making to synthesize cures for what ails people. Their unimaginative, capitalistic backers say no, but, of course, the pair goes ahead with the plan anyway — their Promethean quest fueled by Chinese takeout and pulsing, electronic music.
Clive and Elsa work at Nucleic Exchange Research and Development, and the N.E.R.D. acronym is the first sign that Splice doesn't take itself too seriously. Some awkward, unbelievable scenes between Clive and Elsa use genetics-speak double entendres to reveal romantic involvement while also foreshadowing the heartaches to come. About 15 minutes in and the movie feels somewhat laughable, but when Brody and his younger brother, who is also a scientist, exchange a “double-helix” high-five, it's so silly that it generates real laughs and, again, seems to say, “Just play along — it's fun!”
And Splice is fun. It's also pretty smart. It's a movie that's full of surprises, and while it doesn't attempt to be exactly believable, that slack in the storytelling allows writer/director Vincenzo Natali to push the narrative in a number of directions that pose penetrating (sometimes literally!) questions about ethics, genetic engineering and the messy role that human nature will play when we really start playing God with biology.
Lovers of movie monsters will find a lot to like about Splice. In a birth scene that recalls the operating room scene in John Carpenter's The Thing, the pair's damnable deed literally comes to life as something that David Cronenberg might keep as a pet. Clive and Elsa name the blasphemous baby Dren, and she transforms through a number of developmental stages: At first she looks like a hairless gopher as a toddler, but soon develops into a disturbingly gorgeous creature played by French actress Delphine Chanéac. The special effects are achieved by blending CGI with Chanéac's live action performance, which allows her to become a convincing creature while preserving the real presence of her sometimes tempestuous physicality. As Dren changes, Splice morphs back-and-forth between a monster movie, a medical procedural, a dark family drama and even a kind of bizarre erotic thriller.
The film's sexual content supplies one of the more unexpected twists in a film that does a great job of undermining audience expectations. This part of the story walks a razor's edge between the erotic and the absurd, but Chanéac and Natali keep the character's performance grounded in a coming-of-age subplot that necessarily explores her sexual awakening. Here, Splice dovetails really well with Kiki Smith's work in the Fairy Tales exhibit, and Dren's convincing other-worldliness will remind gallery-goers of Patricia Piccinini's sculptures in the Frist show.
The movies screen together on Friday at 7 p.m. in the Frist Center auditorium. The flicks are free — and if you get there before the popcorn runs out you can grab a bag for nothing.