BIRTH directed by Jonathan Glazer (USA, 2004)
€3.99 in a bargain bin at Comet suggests this is either a tragically overlooked masterpiece or a bona fide turkey.
Jonathna Glazer is a director who likes to alienate audiences. He takes a mixed reception (including boos) at its Venice Film Festival premiere as a positive sign.
Universal acclaim = mainstream cop-out. Who needs the endorsement from Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert liked it so it must have something going for it.
Either side of this, Glazer made Sexy beast and Under The Skin. If you’ve seen either of these great movies you’ll know why I grabbed the DVD. He is someone who understands that cinema works by the power of suggestion and strong imagery. Great dialogue is optional.
Birth is all plot, it’s a ‘what if’ story in which a 10-year-old boy claims to be the reincarnated husband of Anna (Nicole Kidman). The dead spouse and the boy are both called Sean. Coincidence? If so, how does this kid know so much about this woman. We’re talking intimate secrets here.
The film opens with the death of Sean the elder. This is a great tracking shot of the man running through a snowbound park. It’s shot from behind so we don’t see what he looks like. He runs pretty well so must be fit you assume but then under a bridge he collapses with exhaustion and so ends his life. Cut to a water birth and then 10 years later we meet Sean Jr (Cameron Bright).
This sullen child looks as if he is weighed down by adult fears. He doesn’t smile and he reminded me of Damian in The Omen. His devilish aspect made Ebert think of another psychological horror – Rosemary’s Baby. I’d hazard that these associations are entirely intentional. Like those scary movies, Glazer trades in suspense – he wants us to believe that the impossible is possible. This new Sean couldn’t really be the old one reborn,…..or could he.
Kidman and her fiancé Joseph (Danny Huston) laugh off the possibility at first. But then there’s a marvellous set piece where Anna and Joseph go to a Wagner concert and the camera fixes on Anna’s face. What we see is a woman reliving the pain of her loss and beginning to believe some supernatural forces have brought her dead husband back from the grave. At least this is what I see in Kidman’s face. Like I said, Glazer is not one for exposition – he stages the shots and leaves you to figure it out. A picture’s worth a thousand words.
From here on things get seriously creepy with enough ambiguity to give self-righteous moral campaigners a field day.
Kidman is so convinced the boy will grow up to fill her marital bed that Joseph figures the kid is now his rival . Anna’ mother, Eleanor (Lauren Bacall), tries to make her daughter see sense but she’s besotted. Kidman and kid share a bath, kiss on the mouth and ………., well,. you’ll have to watch the movie (or read the plot on Wiki) to know what happens next.
This is the weakest of Glazer’s three movies to date and I can see why some critics panned it. But its strength lies in playing things straight even though the story is preposterous. He is savvy enough to know that if you have a top-notch cast anything can be made to appear credible. Kidman, in particular, is superb and her performance alone is worth far more than the €3.99 I paid to see it