Jonathan Glazer's Birth begins with a juxtaposition of two images. The first is of an adult guy – we know from what we hear on the soundtrack that he is an ultra-rational man of science – jogging in the park. Suddenly, he keels over dead. Then we see the grainy footage of a baby being born, an event that will never be seen or remarked upon again for the rest of the film.
What you make of Birth depends wholly on how you interpret the relationship between those two images. Has the soul of the dead man, Sean, somehow passed into the baby at the moment of its birth, in a mystical act of reincarnation? Is it a simple coincidence of two completely unrelated events? Or is the filmmaker more mischievously messing with our minds by planting the connection?
There is a great deal of mind-messing in Birth – both for viewers and for Anna (Nicole Kidman), Sean's widow. On the verge of marrying a new man, the bland-but-secure Joseph (Danny Huston), Anna is confronted with a ten-year-old boy, also named Sean (Cameron Bright), who claims, without undue explanation, to be the same man she loved so fervently a decade earlier.
No matter what question is designed to trip him up, little Sean keeps confounding the sceptics. And, step by step, the crazy, other-worldly possibility represented by this child begins unravelling the ordered, affluent world of Anna, her friends and family. She longs to believe this fantasy. The film is about the menacing abyss of desire into which Anna implacably walks – even to the point of asking lucky Sean, "What about my needs? Are you ready for those?"
Birth is a demanding, uncompromising film with the courage of its strange-making convictions. Anyone who has a resistance to the improbable, the outrageous, the surreal or the so-called silly in cinema may have a hard time with this superbly calculated and controlled film. Co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière worked with the great Surrealist Luis Buñuel for twenty years, and that experience is richly evident here.
Like in Carrière's script for Oshima's Max My Love (1986), where Charlotte Rampling fell for a chimp, all it takes is one 'foreign' element for all the rules of civility to crumble – transforming even the normally placid Joseph into a jealous, violent beast. The film operates a striking anamorphosis (as Nicole Brenez has said of Abel Ferrara's work), taking us from an initial 'crack' in a public family celebration through to a completely devastated and hollowed-out situation, forever haunted (even at the point of seeming closure and resolution) by the possibility of other scenarios and other worlds.
Birth represents a quantum leap for Sexy Beast (2001) director Glazer, who cut his teeth on high-tech ads and music clips. Even within that sphere, he is an intriguing figure in that the range of his short works reveals a taste for many different modes, from the usual technological tinkering (creating unreal spaces, and playing with variable speeds from ultra-rapidity to near-immobility), to a very English, down-to-earth sense of humour. He also has a fine way with compressed narrative, as his alcohol ads show. The only unforgivable lapse in Glazer's eclectic sensibility is his tendency to turn politically charged images of misery or oppression into emblems of a fashionable, affluent lifestyle.
Eschewing all noisy effects and flashy editing, Glazer creates in Birth a mood that is often deliberately asphyxiating in its slowness and heavy silences. The story's details become richer, more rather than less mysterious, on repeat viewings. And, at last, there is a critique (however implicit) of the affluent life. Where the film lands – on an image of Anna as an inconsolable, broken bride on a beach – opens the movie up to a level of primal, mythological reference worthy of Leonard Cohen.
Glazer pays a large homage here to Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999) – most obviously, in the casting of Kidman. She has never been better on screen. Her ability to suggest, all at once, vulnerability, passion, alienation and gullibility is pitch-perfect. And, most difficult of all for a star, she does not milk our sympathy for Anna. Understanding completely the obsessive but dispassionate gaze of the camera, she offers herself up as a brittle specimen of a world cracking apart.
A supporting cast including Lauren Bacall and Anne Heche expertly fill in the details of this precious milieu. And the eerie young Bright, seemingly shipped in from another planet, is Kidman's perfect foil.
© Adrian Martin April 2005