Walking a fine line between a high-concept film and a pretentious art house fare, Birth is a metaphysical fairytale in search of plot and identity. Part supernatural mystery, part romance, part family drama, but not satisfying on any of these levels, Jonathan Glazer's sophomoric effort displays a talented director eager to exert his audacious style on each and every frame–to the detriment of such important elements as dramatic plot, narrative logic, character development, and even credible acting.
Since the screenplay is a collaborative effort between Glazer, Jean-Claude Carriere, and Milo Addica, it's tempting to guess what was the contribution of each writer to the final story. Carriere is associated with the surreal work of Bunuel (Belle de Jour), but he's also the writer of The Tin Drum, a bizarre, semi-realistic tale of a young boy who ceases to grow physically when the Nazis assume power in Germany. In contrast, Addica is an American writer responsible for Monster's Ball, for which Halle Berry won an Oscar as an abusive mom and troubled widow. The idea for Birth is credited to Glazer, a Jewish-UK filmmaker, who might have been influenced by Jewish folkloristic tales, such as The Dybbuk, which I'll discuss later. To say that the three sensibilities don't match, and that the narrative is incoherent, is an understatement.
The best way to approach Birth is as a modern, brooding fairy tale. Birth has the symmetric structure of a fairytale, with a promising beginning and a clear resolution, but it's the middle chapters–the center (or lack of)–that leave a lot to be desired. The overture is set on a wintry day, during which two symbolic events occur: The moment that a young man collapses and dies after jogging in Central Park, a new baby is born. Death and birth continue to feature prominently as motifs throughout the story, which benefits from the iconography of fairy tales. It is mostly set within the enclosed environments of a building and apartment (the equivalent of a castle), in close proximity to Central Park, which functions as the Forest in mythical stories, a place of both magic and dark secret.
The first sequence is a prolonged, beautifully executed tracking shot (by Harry Savides, who lensed Elephant), viewing from a distance the figure of a jogging man. This powerful image places the audience in a state of suspense, waiting for something to happen, which indeed occurs, when the young man reaches a dark tunnel and collapses.
Cut to ten years later, when Anna (Nicole Kidman) is introduced as a young widow, a woman who's seemingly but deep inside frail and restless. Anna is finally emerging from the shadow of grief to begin a new chapter in her life. She has agreed to marry Joseph (Danny Huston), a cultured man who has gracefully courted and patiently waited for her. Anna's decision pleases her elegant, commanding mother, Eleanor (Lauren Bacall), but we also get the impression of a woman still in love with her dead husband Sean–and uncertain that she's making the right move with a second marriage.
The family's luxuriant apartment, on New York's aristocratic Upper West Side, has been Anna's home since Sean's death, and it's also the temporary residence of her pregnant sister Laura and her husband, who are having their own home remodeled. Friends and relatives gather one night for Anna's engagement party, attended by Clifford (Peter Stormare), Sean's best friend, and Clifford's wife, Clara (Anne Heche), a couple that's not at ease in this privileged environment.
While pausing in the building's marble lobby to ponder her options, Clara spots a young boy sitting by himself in an anteroom; he follows Clara to Central Park, where she hides a package in the ground. At a birthday celebration for Eleanor, that same boy appears out of nowhere, as an uninvited guest. Introducing himself as Sean, he demands to speak privately with Anna, declaring he is her dead husband and asking Anna not to marry Joseph.
The stranger intruding into Anna's life is a solemn but assertive little boy who claims to be the reincarnation of her deceased husband. With a haunting stillness and intense conviction, the interloping boy refuses to leave, disclosing significant details about Anna's past, revealing enough information to make Anna intrigued by his presence and intent.
What begins as a whim on Anna's part soon evolves into a creepy tale that shatters Joseph's confidence as a man and affects each member of the family. Ordered to leave by Anna, Joseph, and his own father, Young Sean will not be dissuaded; he staunchly and calmly refuses, and begins writing letters to Anna. When he collapses at the end of a violent confrontation with Joseph, Anna, feeling his pain, begins to melt. Impressed by the intensity and certainty of Sean's love for her, Anna begins to reciprocate.
I may be reading too much into Birth, but it bears resemblance to the Jewish play The Dybbuk, in which a young girl is forced to marry a wealthy Jew, but is in love with a mystic scholar who studies the forbidden Kabbalah (which deals with the supernatural). When the scholar tries to win her love with Evil Power, he's stricken dead. His spirit enters the girl's body on her wedding day and needs to be exorcised. Unable to stay in her body, his spirit then enters into her soul and the two souls are fused in eternal love.
The narrative follows the logic of stories in which the unexpected appearance of an outsider shatters the seeming balance in the lives of a small group of people. Hitchcock worked extensively with such paradigms in his masterpieces, Psycho (the figure played by Janet Leigh who intrudes into the “castle” of Bates Motel), and The Birds, with Tippi Hedren as the intruder and cause of trouble in a seemingly peaceful town and balanced family.
Extensive effort must have gone into the physical appearance of Kidman, who sports short hair a la Mia Farrow Rosemary's Baby, Polanski's macabre tale of Satanism in contempo Manhattan, or Jean Seberg in her early career. Kidman is far more skillful than Farrow or Seberg ever were, but she's too naturally elegant and strong to play a fragile woman who's literally on the verge of nervous breakdown. As gifted as Kidman is, she struggles throughout the film to portray convincingly emotional transparency, resulting in an adequate but not distinguished or touching performance. That Glazer gives her little to say makes things worse, turning her performance and the whole film into a series of gazes, pauses, and silences pregnant with pretentiousness.
Hitchcock and Polanksi are mentioned here because Glazer, a maverick and ambitious director, aims for the creepy and suspenseful feel that these masters have shown in their best work. With guile and wit, Hitchcock and Polanski build suspense by having the audience observe every humdrum detail, creating a vision of oblique menace, absurdism, and despair. Both masters are known for mixing dark humor and tension, and for evoking evil in the commonplace. Like Hitchcock and Polanski, Glazer emphasizes atmospheric terror that prevails in what's unseen, using the off screen space for chilling effects.
Showing disregard for any kind of constraints, moral, psychological, and even sexual, Glazer handles extremely well the problematic scenes in which Anna and Young Sean kiss or share a bathtub in the nude. Problem is, Glazer sets up a gallery of interesting characters, but then fails to give them anything interesting to do. Indeed, the entire narrative is rambling and repetitious, lacking the semblance of a dramatically engaging plot. After the first reel, it becomes clear that the saga is undernourished and that its subtext is far more important and convincing than the text.
Glazer brings an assured sense of form to a decidedly unconventional narrative, creating a world that's at once strange and familiar. Ultimately, though, there's too much style at the expense of content, and Birth registers as a stylish mystery replete with bizarre but senseless coincidences. Birth is meant to explore the space between knowledge and feelings, the gap between the real and the surreal, the physical and the spiritual, the sacred and the profane. However, even viewers accustomed to the tempo and mood of European art films will find the experience pretentious and ultimately frustrating.