In Birth, the central character and her decorous WASP family live in a huge Upper East Side apartment that is so elegant and fussily arranged it feels dead; you couldn’t breathe the atmosphere in a place like that. The whole movie is like that sunless, arid apartment. It strives for art so hard that it doesn’t even try for entertainment — that would be beneath it.
Nicole Kidman plays Anna, a woman who was widowed by her husband’s sudden heart attack 10 years earlier and is now visited by a 10-year-old boy with the same name, Sean, who claims to be her husband reborn. At first, she merely humors him, but his insistence and his knowledge of intimate details intrigue her. She has never gotten over Sean, and she’s excited by the idea that maybe she’ll never have to. Her uptight family is horrified by the interloper, and her new fiance, Joseph (Danny Huston) is shocked and unmanned by having to compete for her affections with a prepubescent. The film fudges the conceit by pulling you back and forth between disbelief and acceptance, planting compelling doubts but contradicting them by providing the child with information he couldn’t possibly have gotten the way it’s suggested he did.
Visually, the film is high-toned, carefully composed mud. Perhaps I saw a bad print, but the opening scenes were so dark I found myself squinting to make out who was speaking. It’s almost perverse to build sets and construct shots in such a precise way and then light them with a 20-watt bulb. The cinematographer, Harris Savides, has done dark, murky work that made sense thematically (as in Seven), but it feels strangely off-key in these immaculate interiors.
The director/co-writer, Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast), and his collaborators, Milo Addica and Jean-Claude Carrière, think they’re dealing in Big Ideas here, and they want you to pause to savor each of them. The film alternates between lengthily sustained moments of near silence and an overwhelmingly loud symphonic score. The composer Alexandre Desplat has given Birth the kind of bang-you-over-the-head movie music that signals the director’s desperation. Glazer hasn’t put anything exciting on the screen, so he brings in a lot of bombast and ear-shattering kettle drums, hoping to wring some tension and emotion out of the audience. Instead, by its enormous contrast with the visual quiet, it underscores just how little is there in the scenes. Birth has a suspense-film structure, with pieces of the puzzle sliding into place at measured intervals (it’s not hard to imagine Glazer in the editing room with a stopwatch), but, like this weekend’s other big, pretentious release, Enduring Love, it has cumbersome, ill-formed themes about the nature of our attachments and the way we live our lives.
Kubrick is an obvious influence — we even see the building’s doorman (played by Addica) bouncing a ball off the wall like Nicholson in The Shining — and the movie has the same flaws as late Kubrick — the portentousness, the ponderous metaphysics, the snail-paced dialogue sequences, the aridity, the misogyny, the use of virtuoso technique to no discernable purpose, the lack of faith in his subject matter and lack of connection to real life. (Didn’t Kidman learn anything from Eyes Wide Shut?) It’s strange to pay homage to a director by replicating his greatest flaws; it’s like a singer who loves Billie Holiday honoring her by shooting up and getting into abusive relationships.
Birth has been getting attention for its supposedly pervy subject matter, but the biggest shock in the film is how thoroughly retrograde it is. It’s been a while since I saw a “serious” film that was so misogynistic. In the early scenes, friends and family congratulate Joseph for convincing Anna to marry him as if he’d just bagged some rare game animal. Joseph’s attitude toward Anna is strangely, blindly masochistic; at the engagement party he makes a speech about how it took him a year to persuade Anna to go out with him and several more to convince her to marry him. He announces this with pride? Did it never occur to him, or anyone else in their circle, that she doesn’t really want to be with him — that she gave in out of sheer exhaustion? Though the outdated attitudes about women are in the subtext from the beginning, they become shockingly manifest halfway through, when Kidman says, “A man has to support his wife. He has to feed her, defend her, take care of her.” Excuse me — what year is this?
The script treats Nicole Kidman like an object, and she’s photographed like one, too. In her Peter Pan haircut and her clinging sheaths, she has the elegant lines of an Erte drawing. Her performance isn’t bad, but, like the rest of the movie, it’s too WASPishly controlled to permit the audience to connect with her. This is a woman who loves her husband as passionately 10 years after his death as she did when he was alive, but you can barely see it. The only time she’s allowed to give in to her feelings is when she goes to explain the situation to Sean’s best friend. She babbles, jumping around in chronology and never establishing some of the main points she’s trying to make, and for once you feel something of what is going on inside her.
As the young boy who may or may not be Kidman’s reincarnated husband, Cameron Bright has a very adult seriousness and intensity. Even sitting motionless and staring out of frame, he’s totally in character. It’s a spookily self-possessed performance, regardless of his age. There’s something a little off about this kid from the first time you see him; his quiet suggests strange things going on beneath, and his bone structure is reminiscent of those portrait sketches done by supposed alien abductees. You believe that he could be Sean reincarnated — hell, you’re ready to believe anything about him except that he’s a normal child.
Walking out the theater, you may find yourself wondering if you’re dense or if the filmmakers are. Glazer doesn’t provide a satisfying resolution of the is he/isn’t he question, and he doesn’t make it clear if he thinks Anna’s unshakable love for Sean makes her blind and deluded or if it’s pure and noble and right. Is he trying to have it both ways? He has a strange love/hate relationship with his heroine (and with women in general); he humiliates her repeatedly while holding on to the image of her as a perfect, icy goddess. This guy needs his head examined.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Birth / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()