Sometimes, the critics are just wrong. This week, we’re bringing Jonathan Glazer’s Birth back from the dead.
Dir: Jonathan Glazer
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Cameron Bright, Danny Huston, Lauren Bacall, Anne Heche, Peter Stormare
IMDb Rating: 6.0
Metacritic Rating: 50
Does true love actually exist and would we recognise it if it did? Do we have a soul or are we just a loose collection of memories and emotions bound together by time and matter? These intriguing questions are elegantly posed in Jonathan Glazer’s measured sophomore feature. This elegance however is juxtaposed by the taboo circumstances the film’s protagonists find themselves in, which tipped the scales against the picture, resulting in controversy but very little of the praise it most clearly deserves.
What we are confronted with in Birth is one of the hardest taboos to break – a romantic relationship between an adult and a child
Anna (Kidman) is a wealthy widow who, ten years after her husband Sean’s death, appears ready to move on with her life by agreeing to marry Joseph (Huston). This upper class idyll is quickly upset by the appearance of a young boy also named Sean (Bright) who claims to be the reincarnation of Anna’s late husband. At first the child is disregarded, but soon enough he begins to display intimate knowledge of Anna’s past. These revelations begin to draw Anna closer toward him, much to the chagrin of her jealous fiancé. Is Sean really who he says he is, or is he merely a confused child? And are the burgeoning feelings Anna has for him real or just the result of intense grief?
Birth is a dreamlike film which employs long takes to savour and distinguish the ideas at play. Glazer strikes for an almost baroque sensibility as the backdrop for what could have been, in lesser hands, an exploitation narrative. Scenes take place either in a wintry and grey Central Park, or in the stately rooms of Anna’s family abode; all rich greens and deep yellows. Yet what we are confronted with is one of the hardest taboos to break – a romantic relationship between an adult and a child.
When this taboo is central, it is usually to highlight the self-destructive nature of desire and the dark side of sexuality, but Glazer tries to focus on Anna and Sean’s emotional turmoil, as they become more and more entwined and the two of them fall in love. But as we delve deeper into their relationship, it becomes unclear as to who is taking advantage of whom. Glazer plays with the idea of the passing of time and the persistence of memory, communication not with words but through emotion. The way he achieves this is through gorgeously long takes.
On their way to the orchestra, Anna and Joseph chastise the young Sean for harassing them with his wild allegations, although the boy is determined. As Anna leaves she glimpses him as he suddenly collapses – this tears a hole right through Anna. To illustrate this, Glazer positions his camera on the stage of the orchestra, as Anna and Joseph take their seats. Then Glazer slowly pushes in, as Anna contemplates the scene she just witnessed and the possibility that the boy is her lost love. The camera continues to close in as the orchestral music rises and keeps on rising until we are now in a tight close up, as Anna’s world is completely turned upside down and she tries desperately not to let it show, the tears welling in her eyes as the music reaches an almost unbearable volume. This is cinema at its most powerful.
If the characters should be emotionally and ideologically torn asunder, why should the audience be spared?
Unfortunately, it has not been the power of Birth’s images but the controversy surrounding the film that has been its legacy. Audiences turned away in droves because it challenged the strongest taboo there is. The most infamous scene involves the two characters naked in a bath together. An adult relationship between a grown man or woman and a child is abhorrent and unforgivable, and an idea very difficult to wrap your head around. This is of course what Glazer and his co-writers were aiming for: a confrontation and a discussion. Can we reconcile our emotions with the person we think we are? How do we confront the person we see ourselves becoming? These are strong themes which are explored with the use of a strong and controversial scenario. If the characters should be emotionally and ideologically torn asunder, why should the audience be spared?
Birth is a strange and disturbing film. It is also beautiful and extraordinary. Jonathan Glazer immediately revealed himself as a cut above his contemporaries with his debut Sexy Beast, but to follow up with something so assured and complex as Birth is phenomenal. It is controversial, sure, but to focus on the controversy is to miss the point entirely. This article has contained a lot of questions and very few answers, and that is true of Birth itself. Its ultimate victory is to ask these difficult questions and give birth to a new perspective.
All images: New Line Cinema