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Birth (2004) Print E-mail
Friday, 05 November 2004
Behind the limpid, pastel scenes of “Birth” is the terror of the irrevocable loss death invariably brings. That terror is the basis of all legends of the afterlife, of reincarnation; life is so precious that the idea that when we die, we simply go out like candles verges on the intolerable. You must bring this awareness with you to “Birth,” because the movie itself doesn’t confront it head-on; it takes the concept for granted. Jonathan Glazer, director of “Sexy Beast,” deserves praise for treating the idea with seriousness, even solemnity. But the story of the film would work better had it been treated as a comedy. As it is, it’s so deeply somber as to verge on accidental self-parody.

But what keeps bringing it back upright is the performance of Nicole Kidman. Her Anna is (eventually) so committed to the peculiar concept of reincarnation that she essentially defies us not to agree with her. Early on, she even supports a three-minute closeup with no dialogue, just Wagnerian music in the theater she’s attending, by the very subtle emotional changes brushing across her face.

The movie opens with black screen as a man’s voice scoffs at the idea of reincarnation. Then there’s an impressive tracking shot following that man jogging through wintry Central Park; the unusual music is neither an accompaniment to his actions nor a clue guiding us in terms of response. (Throughout, the music is unusual, including over the end credits.) The man suddenly collapses and dies. At the same moment, elsewhere a baby is born. (The title is, however, oblique and puzzling.)

Ten years later, the man’s widow, Anna (Nicole Kidman) and Joseph (Danny Huston) are holding a party for their wealthy friends celebrating their engagement. Anna lives on the Upper East Side in an elegant apartment shared with her mother Eleanor (Lauren Bacall), her sister Laura (Alison Elliot) and her husband Bob (Arliss Howard). As Anna’s friends Clifford (Peter Stormare) and his wife Clara (Anne Heche) arrive in the lobby, Clara ducks aside for a moment with a weak excuse. She goes into the wintry (again) park and buries the gift, then buys a replacement. She’s followed by a solemn-faced boy we later learn is Sean (Cameron Bright).
Some time later, Anna and Laura celebrate Eleanor’s birthday. Sean enters, amusing the guests, and insists on talking to Anna in the kitchen. She thinks it’s some kind of charming game until the boy announces that he is actually Sean, her late husband.

We follow the course of this surprising announcement. At first skeptical, Anna is almost ready to accept the idea after Bob tape-records an interview he has with Sean. The boy does seem to know surprising details of the lives of Sean and Anna, but still—reincarnation?! He’s the son of a tutor (Ted Levine) who often works in Eleanor’s apartment building. Sean’s father and mother (Cara Seymour) are baffled by the boy’s behavior, and the mother is hurt when he tells her that he isn’t her “stupid son” any longer.

Anna’s willingness to believe increases to the point where she is willing to take a naked bath with the boy. This scene is going to result in a lot of outrage and shock, but there’s no nudity involved, and the two don’t touch one another. Still, it is an eye-opener, more than the more explicit early sex scene between Anna and Joseph.

This is Glazer’s second film, and radically different in style from “Sexy Beast.” But he seems to have tried to make the film as Stanley Kubrick would have, with unusual but elegant camera angles, trucking shots, imaginative placement of dialog and an emphasis on sets and surroundings. The movie is also shot in desaturated, almost sour color, with low-light photography; this gives the interiors a greenish-gold tinge that becomes wearisome; a movie shouldn’t be a strain simply to watch.

However, for all his faithfulness to Kubrick’s style, he misses something very important: presented with this material, Kubrick would have either made it more grim, or much funnier—he loved irony, but Glazer evades it. The movie is almost drained of humor; one of the few deliberate jokes (if that’s the word) is Bacall referring to the boy as “Mr. Reincarnation.” I presume Glazer was hyper-cautious about the possibility of bad laughs, or of deliberate ones that, once achieved, would keep the audience laughing even when he didn’t want that kind of response.

Kidman is outstanding, by far the best thing about the film, and the only basically sympathetic character. Danny Huston’s Joseph is hard to decipher—are we to regard him as a good choice for Anna? He says he loves her, and she’s willing to marry him—but his late almost violent response to Sean is shocking and disturbing. Still, that’s the only time he shows any strong feelings. The parts of all the other players are significantly underwritten; Stormare and Bacall fare the best because of their strong screen presence. But Anne Heche is left floating; her character seems erratic and annoying.

Cameron Bright, the boy who plays Sean, is unusually grave, and resembles a miniature Christopher Walken. Until near the end, he never smiles, and he never laughs; he never shows any intensity of any sort. Glazer is so cautious about edging into humor that he drains the boy of any real life. He doesn’t even make his claims to be the reincarnation of Anna’s husband with any energy. His seriousness is supposed to make his claims more convincing, but it doesn work that way.

The photography by Harris Savides is clean and precise, but the subdued color and dim light rob the movie of any real visual texture—it seems soft and blurry throughout, like a fading memory. This also results in the final scene taking place in the bleakest, most leafless May in northern hemisphere history.

Kevin Thompson’s production design is realistic, but the narrow, ill-lit hallways of the apartment tend to induce claustrophobia. The most exceptional aspect of the movie, apart from Kidman’s affecting performance, is the imaginative, layered use of sound. Everything from the silken slither of sheets to the moist sound of a tongue during speech is rendered with crystal clarity, but always in the service of the scene.

It’s hard to care about any of the characters; all except Kidman remain remote and uninteresting. “Birth” is a respectable movie, and Glazer was courageous to try to realize his unusual idea in the form of a drama—but the movie never jells, never comes together.

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