Nicole Kidman as Anna (Photo courtesy of Fine Line Features)
“You’re getting to be quite a connoisseur of bad Nicole Kidman movies,” a friend of mine informed me a while ago, somewhere amidst the string of five in a row terrible films in which Kidman starred and I mercilessly panned, either in the pages of Vigilance or on the web. And looking back at The Hours, The Human Stain, Cold Mountain, Dogville, and The Stepford Wives—each one of them a ham-fisted piece of crap—there seemed to be no reason to expect that Kidman could any longer choose a script worth filming. After her seminal, inspired work in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, she’s disappointed time and again.
Therefore, my expectations were exceedingly low for her newest film Birth. From the generic title to the now stale premise of a woman’s dead lover reincarnated as a much younger man (in this case, a 10-year-old boy) the project reeked of why-bother. Imagine my surprise when Birth turns out not only to be very good, but one of the finest, most indispensable movie-going experiences of the year.
I didn’t catch the director Jonathan Glazer’s first film, Sexy Beast; from the opening frames of Birth, however, it’s evident that Glazer stands as a master visual stylist, and he’s had the sense to hire Harris Savides, the brilliant cinematographer who worked with Gus Van Sant on Elephant and Gerry, to lens the wintry landscapes and luxuriant long takes that at least partially define this film’s cold, minimalist allure.
Birth opens on a primordial, snowy forest. We see a hooded figure jogging on what initially might be a country lane; the jet-black of his running attire contrasts to the snow-covered path ahead of and behind him. The tracking shot lasts uninterruptedly for a fairly long time. There are no cutaways to the jogger’s face, no change in perspective. Gradually, his forward path reveals familiar landmarks—we’re in Central Park, lo and behold, which has rarely looked so pastoral. As the runner, the camera, and the snow keep on steadily, bright orchestral music enlivens the soundtrack. An insistent celesta peals against a coursing river of dark strings, and I didn’t realize until the end credits that Alexandre Desplat composed the score. He also wrote the music for Girl with a Pearl Earring; he’s one of the most beguiling modernists writing film scores, and Desplat has the bonus this time of conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, fully realizing how his vast, sweeping textures should sound. The jogger eventually collapses and dies under a bridge. Snowflakes continue to fall.
Glazer has two collaborators on the screenplay: Milo Addica, who co-wrote Monster’s Ball, and the now 73-year-old Jean-Claude Carrière, who for many years was Luis Buñuel’s writing partner, perhaps most memorably on Belle de Jour and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Birth gently recalls the mood of Belle de Jour’s final scenes, those tense moments (I hope I’m remembering this right) after Catherine Deneuve’s young doctor husband has been shot by her pimp and crippled, and she sits there alongside him enduring bitter silence, until at one point he unexpectedly rises from his wheelchair, walks to the window, and husband and wife romantically reaffirm their love and fidelity. Which version of events was “true”? Birth extends this indefinite state for an entire film.
After a prelude of mourning, the film moves in its own measured pace into the milieu of his widow Anna (Kidman) who lives in a posh Upper East Side apartment with her mother (Lauren Bacall), her new fiancé Joseph (a surprisingly well-heeled Danny Huston), her hugely pregnant sister, and a brother-in-law. They are obviously “old money.” At a birthday party for the mother, Glazer establishes their austere reserve. “Well done, Joseph,” Bacall laconically acknowledges his conquest of Anna after a respectably long courtship.
A young boy infiltrates the birthday dinner (the lighting in this scene is eerily wonderful, going from light to dim to the faint glow of candles on a cake and back to light again) claiming to be the reincarnation of Anna’s late husband Sean, now dead 10 years. Cameron Bright, the child actor who plays Sean, does a good approximation of being a man trapped inside a kid’s body. Bright has perfected an adult male’s smolder; with his buzz haircut and absence of smile, he’s a menacing little man.
Glazer, Savides, and Desplat render miracles in sound/sight juxtapositions. In the scene in which Joseph and Anna are late for a concert because they’ve stopped to have a talk with Sean’s father, the camera holds its gaze on Anna’s face, a distraught mask, eyes bloodshot. There are no cuts to what they’ve come to see on stage, only the furious bowing of strings underscoring this risky, prolonged close-up of Kidman, and the actress tells us with the fewest nervous intimations that Anna has begun to believe Sean.
In another instance, the camera pans from a room that’s empty, except for the sound of Sean’s voice leaving a sinister message on Anna’s answering machine, to a terrific shot of the emotionless Bacall framed in a doorway, listening, then on to an absurdly humorous pairing of mother and daughter side-by-side in some upscale eatery, saying nothing, just chewing in unison, rhythmically, to the motion of the string orchestra passage on the soundtrack. What Glazer does here recalls Kubrick’s technique in 2001: the actors are at his service, content to be pawns in his grander scheme of moods, impressions, and psychological sketches. They’re wise enough to know that the movie isn’t really about them. When Bacall finally speaks, she delivers Sean’s message in such matter-of-fact tones you’d think his sudden manifestation represented nothing out of the ordinary.
And is that what Sean is, a manifestation of Anna’s anxieties about marrying Joseph, her regrets in general, as unreal as a Buñuel phantom?
Joseph at first finds the situation amusing: “I can understand why a little boy would be in love with you,” he humors both Anna and Sean. The long-faced Danny Huston, who made such a hash of his leading role in Silver City, seems absolutely right as Joseph. The role allows Huston to be at once aristocratic and a Jimmy Stewart-sort of chap. He has two extraordinary scenes: in the first, having been stood up by Anna for a realtor appointment (she’s taken the husband/child for a slow carriage ride through the park) he looks out a window, and the reflections of bare branches intersecting one another are imposed over his image—it’s a bravura Savides composition, and we know that Joseph’s losing Anna, if not to the boy, then to a form of insanity.
In the second, Sean taunts Joseph in front of the others during a chamber music recital at the family apartment, and Joseph snaps. Huston conveys the displaced fiancé’s physical and emotional rage without resorting to actor-ish mannerisms, and the scene disturbs all the more for Huston’s realism. When Joseph lashes out, the weirdness that was confined between Sean and Anna unleashes, too, and the insanity spreads, as if it were infecting every well-tended room.
The film’s final sequence is too beautiful to pass over, so skip this last paragraph until after you’ve seen Birth. Cut to May, a wedding party by the seashore, a festive setting visited by madness. A woman on the beach wanders into waves in her white gown, and the ominous strings subside to where the only sound is the ocean waves’ crash. The movie oars into dark waters and doesn’t quite know how to get out of them. Yet this, too, is perfectly in step. Neither do any of us. – NPT
October 21, 2004