When I first watched this film in the cinema, I admired the Kubrickian grandeur of Harris Savides’ cinematography and Kevin Thompson’s production design, and I found the dramatic narrative to be compelling if, at times, farfetched. In the end, I drove away from the cineplex ambivalent about its merits and confused by the filmmakers’ unwillingness to provide “proper” narrative closure. In an earlier post on this blog I even suggested Birth to contain moments best defined as ludicrous. But I popped the DVD in the other night and found myself even more glued to the screen—more compelled to watch the actions unfold without the need to define them. I found myself held captive by the taut, sexually menacing and ominous atmosphere (shades of Pinter?). Perhaps I was too caught up in solving the film’s many mysteries the first time around. This past weekend I embraced the ambiguities and simply watched the actors’ faces, marveled at Jonathan Glazer’s use of sound and silence (Alexandre Desplat’s score deserves greater recognition), and continued to be impressed by the film’s craft while also acknowledging how much emotional terrain is mined in this metaphysical detective story. Here the inexplicable rhythms of love and desire are left unresolved as the characters wrestle with forces they have kept bottled up for so long—the adverse scars of grief and the near impossibility of reconciliation. And the acting . . . I’m still not exactly sure how, but Nicole Kidman makes smart choices (is it possible she is the most engaging female actor working in film at this moment) and her work in this project is flawless. Kidman makes you believe that Anna believes this ten year old boy to be her husband reincarnated, and it is heart-wrenching to watch how far her character is willing to go to regain the love she once lost. Danny Huston plays the unctuous yet easily recognizable fiancé who falls apart once he discovers that young Sean is about to wreck his picture-perfect, upper-eastside existence. Lauren Bacall, Anne Heche, Zoe Caldwell and Arliss Howard also turn in finely detailed supporting performances, but it is Cameron Bright as young Sean who must keep this film afloat and he does so very well. Sean continually deflects the adult gaze—his pudgy, preadolescent body and moon face stoicism resist typical representations of childhood in American cultural production; he is too intense and impenetrable to be objectified or even eroticized (even if he does strip off and jump into a bath with Kidman’s Anna). More eerily intimidating than innocent, Sean cannot easily be written off as a bad seed who simply requires greater discipline. He is, in fact, one of the most challenging characters in the film, because we never understand what motivates his love for Anna, nor do we know what to do with his own act of nobility upon realizing the man he so wanted to be was little more than an epistolary fiction. The look on his face when he confesses to Anna that he made a mistake is heartbreaking. And the striking final tableaux on the beach, as Anna realizes that no one will ever love her as much as this young boy, is magnificent—offering up a haunting note of despair that would have made the Brontë sisters applaud.

2 thoughts on “Birth”

  1. For some reason, this just recently showed up at Video Journeys and I rented it and watched it last night.

    I think Jeff does a very fine job explaining why this film is so good. I agree – it’s a quite original film with excellent performances all around, and after falling off the nicole kidman bandwagon for awhile (bewitched, the interpreter, stepford wives, cold mtn.) I have to admit that she’s really strong here making us empathize with her very unsettling emotions – and from a character who is not exactly emotional to beig with.

    I wonder how much a film like Eyes Wide Shut – as flawed as it was – helped her pull off this role?

    I’d also point out how effective the ending was here – with the “filmmakers’ unwillingness to provide “proper” narrative closure” – compared to Kontroll, where we’re just left to basically flip a coin. There’s so much more room to think about what things happened in Birth than there is in Kontroll.

    Ebert actually compared this to M Night Shyamalan’s films, which I think is a bit much – but it does effectively guide the viewer from one way of thinking to another in what’s possible in this film.

    And all of this is without even addressing the fact that there are some seriously taboo subjects dealt with in the film, and I love it when mainstream filmmakers (and actors) decide to deal with such things – and make them work.

    This is well worth renting.

    There was a lot less spitting in this than in Kontroll as well.

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