Inhabiting a gradient from electrifyingly un-ironic romanticism to baleful malevolence to existential calamity, Jonathan Glazer’s follow-up to his debut Sexy Beast is subtle in its implication but implosive in touch, feel, sensation, and style. It hangs over you, with premonitions of doubt and stenches of inclement weather overhead, but it avoids many (most) of the easy tricks films use to evoke the shadows of modernity: expressionistic shadows, a thick gauze of lighting, canted angles. Many films today are embalmed in expectations and mental prisons for what horror might mean, and here is the fiercely alive Birth, an otherworldly film not because of the presence of diegetic aliens or space travel but because it confronts our world through an alternate perspective from the one most of us call home. Although its intellectual and sensory channels were undeniably forged from the ghostly modernistic vibes of Resnais and the self-inquiry of Antonioni, it nonetheless inhabits the frontiers of consciousness.
It sounds like a mystery. Anna (Nicole Kidman) is on the verge of marriage to Joseph (Danny Huston) when a young boy named Sean (Cameron Bright) emerges and begs that she not complete the vow of love, following up with cryptic statements indicating he is her deceased ex-husband of the same name. But, as a film without a resting place, Birth’s quotient of mystery is configured not in twists or turns, not rooted in what will or has happened, but in why the characters act as they do, and, ultimately, how we are ourselves. The identity of young Sean doesn’t really matter to the film, nor do his intentions. (Do not expect a sinister child-serial-killer story or a film about a preternatural sociopath). His existence is a cipher for the film to explore (but crucially not to decode) various emotional currents and mental states inhabited by the other characters. If Sean disrupts their routines, he reveals their inner-most thoughts.
In minor ways, it can be hard not to look upon Birth as a more inchoate form of Glazer’s ten-years-later follow-up Under the Skin, a spiritual successor in the society-as-echo-chamber camp. But they aren’t companion pieces. Birth is less woolly than Under the Skin, the latter a metaphysical exploration of women as mankind’s phantom limbs and a study in the corporeal body as a conduit for investigating notions of identity. This 2004 film also concerns discrepancies in the manifested, external self and the internal being, but it is mounted not as an openly experimental avant-garde exercise but a rigorously, almost oppressively classical statue, a film that looks and acts like a Golden Age Hollywood picture. It’s an apparition of our past about apparitions of our past.
Co-written by Glazer with Jean-Claude Carriere and Milo Addica, that vintage style is a boon to Birth, its very skeletal structure upon which Glazer builds a formidable formal musculature. The cramped, aged style suggests modernity seeking refuge in the countenance of the past, and in lieu of a thriller or even a psychodrama, Birth is an art-house tone poem about personhood in stasis. One such person is young Sean, either a child expressing mental ownership over a woman he ostensibly has never met or a male returning from the grave to claim his love and disallow her from moving on. But another victim of the past is Anna, stifled by the milquetoast Joseph and shackled to the inexpressive mores of her high-class family, all existing in a permanent miasma of propriety that Sean disrupts even as his monotonous delivery marks him an embodiment of the very same mental underwire. Secretly, Anna obviously does hope that she can relive her past with Sean, as though this child is giving her a second lease on love, essentially giving her an opportunity to escape the present. Focusing on an increasingly thin membrane between past and present, Birth feels like a ghostly after-image of Hitchcock’s Rebecca, undeniably drawn from the same perversity but faded or distanced just enough to wring out its own milieu.
The perversions of the story aren’t beyond the screenplay, but the characters seem almost willfully unable to draw them out, as though trapped in some existential stupor, drinking in the same stew as Sean, with Anna ultimately unwilling to admit the verboten nature of what she is doing because the possibility of her past coming alive for her proves too insatiable. (This is especially true in the film’s most infamous moment, where she shares a bath with Sean). The young boy evokes some half-unwarranted, half-necessary jolt of the unexpected into her existence, and the relationships he draws are graced with an alluring charge of supple uncertainty. He starts to become a child for Anna as much as a husband, an affair on multiple levels, and her true desires are as much as question as Sean’s. Although disturbed by the child’s claims, it is readily apparent early on that she develops a glimmer of hope that this is Sean, and that she can continue her relationship with him eternally and from beyond the grave at any cost despite his reincarnation as a child. Cryptic clues are dangled throughout, but they all think of themselves not as antecedents to answers but as experiments of thought that cannot be answered or assimilated into conventional, rational expectations for human action.
The Innocents on its sidelines, Last Year at Marienbad in its heart, and the memory of other modern-classical works like Eyes Wide Shut storming overhead, Birth is a troubling reincarnation of those films and their austere psychosis, but more a reworking through the questions of gender and identity found in those films than a requiem for those films’ collective demise. It is not a note-perfect recreation – a waxwork of those films that adores them – but an investigation of those films, a film that investigates the value of resurrecting the past both as a cinematic style and as a young child. If anything, young Sean’s theoretical resurrection is a clue-in to this film’s relationship to its cinematic forebears: rekindling them and their memories, yes, but also irreparably changing them by acknowledging that they cannot exist as they once were. Ultimately, Birth is a chilly tremble of mourning, a mourning both for those films and their austere ways and for a past love that, in Anna’s mind, refuses to die and is, young child or not, waiting to be reborn.
But Birth is also cautious not to give Anna over to us as a mind post-autopsy, her secrets fully revealed. Birth achieves not an easy excavation of her complete unconsciousness but an interstitial space of mesmeric curiosity, existing between unconsciousness desire and conscious reality. The film is thick with leisurely shots of society in the hustle of (in)action that do not slip into chilly affectation, particularly due to Kidman’s epochal performance, her every movement and eye-gaze radiating frissons of insecurity and fear, not at whether this child is Sean but at why she wants it to be him, and her fear that he isn’t. She provides many points of ingress into her soul, but her gestures also confound and contradict our best guesses. Every aspect of Birth conspires to create a cumulative portrait of her sublimated grief, all exposed in the film’s most famous shot where Harris Savides’ searching and bewitchingly soft-hard cinematography laser-focuses on Kidman’s face, almost rupturing her soul as the camera takes in her layers of confusion, excitement, uncertainty, curiosity, vulnerability, and dawning revelation. Her face seems to dissolve into Alexander Desplat’s eerily transfixing score that takes on a corporeal presence, haunting every scene. Somehow, this film is both sensory and psychological void and overload, a meditation on both the possibility and the cost of a love that transcends all barriers, a work that tells us nothing and yet, somehow, hints at everything.