Film 2019: Birth


I don’t think there’s any point in pretending that I bought this DVD for any other reason than Nicole Kidman, for her unusual, short-haired look that is so totally uncharacteristic but which is so effective. I bought it once, and let it go and bought again, late last year, but I am no nearer understanding it now than before, a state that I think is shared by Director and co-scripter Jonathan Glazer.

I was tempted to describe Birth as a film with a great hollowness at its centre, but I tink that’s misleading. I think rather it has a multiplicity of hollownesses to it, as much perhaps as one for each character as well as one for the film itself. It sets out to explore an idea that fascinates Glazer, as well as Kidman, who wanted the central role and who does as good a job as anybody in it, but it fails to either root the idea properly or, ultimately, to see it through with any conviction.

The film begins with a disembodied voice, lecturing about non-belief in reincarnation. This is Sean, never to be seen, except as a black, hooded silhouette in a snowy Central Park, running briskly for some distance before collapsing and dying under a bridge. The camera cuts to a baby being born.

The lecture is meant to be ironic, but instead it’s too heavy-handed and blatant. We jump ten years, to a party in an apartment block of rich people. Sean’s widow, Anna (Kidman), has agreed to marry Joseph (Danny Huston), and everybody’s congratulating… him. Not her, or them, just him. This was something I noticed early on: Anna is a prize, a trophy, not real. She has a job, although we don’t know what she does, although for that matter we don’t know what Joseph does either. That’s supposed to be because it doesn’t matter, it’s of no relevance what either of them do, what any of the people in this film do, but instead it creates a lack of solidity that makes everyone unreal. They have no roots, no purpose.

A lot of people are at the party, and it’s a while before we work out who everybody is, which contributes further to the film’s nebulous nature. There’s Anna’s mother (Lauren Bacall), her pregnant sister Laura, Sean’s brother Clifford, very much out of place, his wife Clara (Anne Heche) deciding at the last minute that their engagement present needs a ribbon, but instead rushing out in the dark to bury it in the Park, and buying a silver-framed mirror instead.

And there’s a silent, sullen-faced ten year old boy who follows her, watching her, who then invades the party. He (Cameron Bright) is called Sean. He invades a later dinner party to tell Anna that he is Sean, her dead husband, Sean.

This is the centrality of the film. Has Sean the lecturer been reincarnated as Sean the ten year old boy? Nobody believes it. Nobody, that is, except Anna, and not at first but long before the end she has become besotted with this unprepossessing boy, believes in him passionately in the face of everybody else, loves him as Sean, her husband, whom she has never stopped loving ten years after his death, and who plans to run away with him and marry him when he turns twenty-one.

It’s ridiculous, both in concept and execution. Anna starts with natural scepticism, but unlike everybody else, Sean’s seemingly impossible knowledge of Sean and his life with Anna, convinces her that it’s real. Every other person who knew Sean, in life, who roundly declares this is not Sean is dismissed.

This is supposed to feed our air of uncertainty, our difficult to suspend disbelief. What it really is is Anna convincing herself of what she wants to be convinced, that the husband she loves has returned to her.

It doesn’t help that as either Sean, Bright is so unprepossessing. He’s an intense but monotonised-voiced kid who’s either oblivious to the obvious distress he’s causing Anna in the beginning, or else doesn’t care about her as long as he gets his way. Which, notwithstanding his genuine love for Anna, is not a million miles away from Joseph, whose own disturbance is more important than Anna’s.

Apparently, until a fortnight before shooting commenced, Birth was supposed to be about Sean, until Glazer’s fascination with what Kidman could bring to the part (and let us not forget that, aside from being seriously gorgeous, Kidman is a seriously superb actress), it became about Anna.

The film’s problem is that it cannot really commit itself to its semi-supernatural basis. Its conceit is that a ten year old boy convinces a woman in her late thirties that he is her husband. It’s a fantastic prospect in every sense of the word, and Glazer fails to anchor it in any form of realism by making the characters into cyphers. And the film can’t sustain itself so far as its proposition is concerned, letting everything down by revealing it all as a fake. Worse still, an unsupported fake.

You see, we’ve already seen the con in action. The buried engagement present. Because Sean was screwing his sister-in-law Clara, was conducting a love affair with her. To prove his love for her was greater, he brought Clara all Anna’s love-letters, unopened, though he wouldn’t leave Anna. They were to be a spiteful engagement gift, but Clara couldn’t go through with it at the last minute. Sean the boy followed her, dug it up, memorised all the personal details in the letters.

And even the con collapses in an improbable manner. Sean the boy loves Anna, but all it takes is Clara telling him that if he really were Sean the husband, he’d have come to her first to break him of his obsession. And all it takes is Sean telling Anna he’s not Sean to break her of her obsession. No, it doesn’t wash.

The film does nothing to explain how and when Sean fell in love with Anna in the first place, and even less to explain why Anna starts to fall for the boy. It then cuts its own throat in a weak coda in which Anna apologises to Joseph and begs him to take her back (which he does) by repetitively insisting its wasn’t her fault. Then there’s the wedding, accompanied by a voiceover from Sean, having a school photo taken, explaining that he can’t explain it (because Glazer can’t), that he’s better now and smiling for the only time in the film. Which leads to Anna paddling in the sea in her wedding dress and looking like she hasn’t got the courage to walk out. It’s a non-ending ending of someone who hasn’t got an ending, and what little merit the film has is washed away with it.

So does Birth have any merit? It’s low-key, and deliberately paced, it’s Park scenes are wintry and bleak with a stark beauty and it has Kidman. Her short hair, unadorned wardrobe and short, clipped sentences are intended to signal a woman still in mourning, inside and out, someone who has let her sexuality and glamour go (so, the nude scene where Anna and Joseph are having sex fits in…?). That theory runs up against the fact that the short hair makes us focus upon Kidman’s face more clearly, and that even downplayed she is just too naturally attractive, whilst the quiet, close-fitting wardrobe demonstrates that whilst she is slender and slim, she’s got curves where you’d expect them. Dammit, when she’s still sceptical of Sean, she teases him over her needs and how he, as a ten year old boy, can’t satisfy them.

But for Kidman, I wouldn’t think twice about retaining this film, but she rises above its failings luminously, and is always worth seeing. Not that i’ll be re-running this film too many times.

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