Birth (15)

Not your typical reincarnation then
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

You may know British director Jonathan Glazer from his prize-winning Guinness ad, with the horses thrashing through the surf. You may know him as the director of Sexy Beast, a comedy of (largely foul) manners that also had its share of show-stopping effects.

Neither Jonathan Glazer, however, is recognisable in his second feature Birth, which may well be the most sober film ever directed by a former ad specialist. You won't find spectacle here, but rather a mixture of stylistic detachment and psychological intensity. Birth plays such a subtly tuned game that many viewers may feel short-changed, especially if they're expecting realistic motivation and transparent emotions or, alternatively, a creepy can-such-things-be tale in the M Night Shyamalan mould. But this is one of those films that asks to be taken on its own terms or not at all.

The film begins with a lengthy tracking shot that - accompanied by Alexandre Desplat's glistening score - functions rather like an overture. A man jogs through a snow-covered Central Park, the camera hovering over him like a dispassionate observing angel; at last, he drops dead under a bridge. We cut to a baby's birth, then to the intertitle "Ten years later". A decade after the death of the jogger, Sean, his widow Anna (Nicole Kidman) is engaged to Joseph (Danny Huston). Then, as Anna's regal, glacial mother Eleanor (Lauren Bacall) celebrates her birthday, a 10-year-old boy (Cameron Bright) walks in, chilling the air like a ghost at the banquet. "You're my wife," he announces, taking Anna to one side. "It's me. Sean."

The child is ejected, but something about his baleful presence gets under Anna's skin, and ours. We may not believe him, yet we're prepared to entertain his claim as a plausible conceit for an otherwise realistic tale of moneyed Manhattan - that a dead man can be reincarnated as a 10-year-old boy. Anna certainly comes to believe that the boy is Sean reborn, and while some stages of her acceptance seem bizarre, even shocking, in conventional terms - a shared bath, a kiss - they make sense in the emotional and psychological context that the film sets up. What seems most surreal is the calmness with which her family puts the boy's claims to the test of rationality, with Anna's brother-in-law (Arliss Howard, warmly wry) quizzing him to establish his identity.

Our own ingrained need for reason is similarly challenged, and if we look for coherent explanations, we just won't buy the film. At press screenings, I heard perplexed voices asking, "How did he...", "Why didn't she...?", even complaints about the boy Sean's lack of parental control. But that's like reading The Turn of the Screw and objecting that the heroine should never have been employed as a governess: you either embrace the poetic logic or you don't.

What helps us embrace that logic in Birth is Glazer's exceptionally controlled direction, which creates a wintry image of New York as a repressive, tarnished place, where the slush-coloured exteriors are just as claustrophobic as the cave-like depths of Anna's august uptown apartment. Harris Savides' photography invests the film with haunted melancholy: framing a figure in an apartment lobby with the isolating stiffness of an Edward Hopper painting, or having Kidman emerge from shadows with a blazing birthday cake, like one of Bergman's ghostly chiaroscuro moments. Equally important is Desplat's music, with its pensive, insistent weaving of leitmotifs: xylophone ripples, low-level Mahler-esque trumpet flourishes, all underscored with an ominous techno-like bass throb.

The casting is astute, not least in the choice of Cameron Bright, a solemn and solid boy who unnervingly evokes a careworn adult interiority, the sense of keeping an onerous secret. Along with Anne Heche's greyhound-like nervous intensity as an old friend of Anna's, and Bacall's harshly amused grandeur, the film is a showcase for the underrated Danny Huston who, with his oddly strangulated aristocratic diction and sleekly supercilious features, makes Joseph in turns sympathetic and magisterially loathsome.

Birth also settles any doubts one may have had about Nicole Kidman's acting. Here, modelling an elfin crop that suggests Anna is as much a child as Sean, she tackles a role that allows no emotional shorthand. We sense that Anna has left the realm of logic, but to say she's obsessed or going mad doesn't do justice to the fine undecidability of the feelings that Kidman conveys. Perhaps her best acting ever comes in the audacious extended shot where Anna, at the opera, sits silently watching the stage, the camera fixed on a close-up of her face, tearfully galvanised with precise emotional shifts.

This spare, oblique film suggests far more than it shows us. Glazer's co-writers are Milo Addica and the French veteran Jean-Claude Carrière, Buñuel's collaborator: that may explain something of Birth's strangeness. To a degree, the film could be considered a companion piece to Carrière's script for Oshima's Max mon amour, in which the bourgeois order was similarly disrupted by Charlotte Rampling falling for a gorilla. But it also suggests a reworking of Hamlet, with Sean as both dead father and oedipally fixated son, attempting to displace Huston's Claudius: Joseph is the invader who has annexed Anna's home.

This is perhaps a film less about Freudian passions than about the struggle for territory. But the elusiveness of Birth's meaning is part of the film's richness and depth. A key word in the script is "spell", which sums up the film's allure: Birth may leave you frustrated, or mystified, but if you connect with it in any way at all, then I bet you anything you'll want to see it again straight away.