Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Birth (Jonathan Glazer, 2004)

[The following post is my belated April selection of my Blind Spots choices.]

Jonathan Glazer's Birth cribs so much from Stanley Kubrick that I don't think that even Steven Spielberg's A.I., Kubrick's own former project, owes as much to the master. A stately, graceful tracking shot follows a lecturer, Sean, as he goes on a run in Central Park after decrying the concept of reincarnation. The shot is as frigid as the snow-covered area it covers, following behind the jogging man like a stalker until, finally, the angle changes and darts in front of the man. As it does so, the camera moves back into a tunnel under a bridge as Sean slows his pace and starts to stumble. In the middle of this darkened hole, he collapses and dies of a heart attack. Somewhere else, a baby is born in a bath.

The connection is obvious. A man enters a giant womb and dies as a child emerges from one to live. The man who dismissed reincarnation is visually linked to rebirth, and soon the narrative makes this the driving focus of the film when Sean's widow, Anna (Nicole Kidman), has her slowly rebuilt life re-shattered 10 years after her husband's death when a young boy (Cameron Bright) shows up at her door claiming to be Sean. This Sean's emergence raises metaphysical questions that gradually come to nothing as Glazer icy framings serve only to keep a ludicrous, overheated melodrama on ice.

The performances are unimpeachable. Cameron Bright embodies the film's Kubrickian remove to such an extent that he seems as likely to be the Antichrist as Anna's husband. He speaks with a deliberation that ages his soft features and sharpens his face into a disturbingly unreadable blank. The boy makes plausible the notion of young Sean truly being Anna's husband brought back to life, and the strained longing that comes from his prepubescent throat is conveyed with such conviction that he really does call the metaphysics of rebirth into question. Playing the widow only recently recovered from her loss, Kidman finds, for the second time, a film cold enough to suit her immaculate look. More than any other element in the film, she fluidly blends the aesthetic distance and emotional tumult. In the film's best scene, Anna, having gone from laughing dismissal of this boy's mad claims to mounting uncertainty, attends a performance of Wagner's Die Walküre with her fiancé, Joseph (Danny Huston). As the prologue builds in intensity, the camera remains on Kidman in closeup as the music matches her turbulent inner thoughts. Holding back her feelings, a blush around her eyes and a quickening of breath start to rattle her impassive face. Taken out of context, the scene might merely be a visualization of the power of music, its expression of emotion passionate yet reserved. Kidman's casting is the biggest piece of Kubrick theft in the movie, yet the one area where Glazer's take exceeds his idol's. This is Kidman's best work to date, at once playing up her ice queen image even as she gets to break that image down in a way she could only intellectualize, not embody, in Eyes Wide Shut.

Unfortunately, these two leads, as well as the other actors, soon find themselves trapped by an infuriating linear narrative that tosses out the profound implications of Sean's story in favor of the simple question of whether or not he really is a reincarnated man. Every discussion of Sean among Anna and her family simply devolves into a yes-no back-and-forth over whether Sean is who he claims, with the only significant narrative change-up being that Anna eventually crosses over from the "no" camp into the "yes" camp. In-between, we are treated to increasingly ludicrous sights, most notably Joseph finally snapping and dragging the boy into a room and spanking him in a shameless rip-off of Barry Lyndon. Yet Kubrick's version is the darker, funnier, more resonant one, with the spanker becoming the spanked and its consequences rippling out over a decades-long grudge. Here, it's just a long overdue expression of frustration by a man watching a boy trying to muscle in on his fiancée.

Eventually, Glazer waters down the unease of Sean's mystery to the point that its sudden explanation fails to elicit even outrage over the letdown of the film's promise. Even one last burst of despair on Anna's part plays out as yet another plot point that wastes the depths of the actors' performances. By the end of Birth, the only aspect of the film that held my interest was Desplat's gorgeous score, which is one of the great soundtracks of its time. Desplat has a better grasp on the film's potential than Glazer, his lush melodies opening up the static frame even as undercurrent of musical distress and eeriness suggest something vaguely horrific about the whole affair. Birth has been compared to Rosemary's Baby by many, but it is Desplat's score, not Glazer's direction, that makes the connection clearest. I was glad to watch Birth for its two phenomenal leads and this masterful score, but I was sad that I left the movie admiring nothing else. My first Blind Spots choice I've not loved.


  1. I was interested in this film but ultimately let down by it.

    The thing that annoyed me the most was Cameron Bright. I just can't stand that kid. He's awful.

  2. That's too bad, I liked this film quite a bit. I didn't find its Kubrick inspiration too pronounced, though I hadn't seen Barry Lyndon before I saw it and therefore couldn't make the connection with the spanking scene, which indeed seems like a theft. But other than that, the film's distance and coldness is not enough to signal a ripoff of Kubrick, especially when Glazer's dealing with his metaphysical subject in a pretty loose fashion, far from the scientific precision of Kubrick. I also find it more intimate in scale than anything Kubrick ever did. In fact, I think the film is more aligned with Kieslowski in its patient and accurate depiction of ordinary people placed under strange metaphysical pressures. Glazer does a great job of compressing the emotional depth of the story to gestures and glances, which is equally indebted to the fine performances.

  3. Brilliant review. I also noted the parallels between this and AI. Kidman is fantastic, as she normally is, but not good enough to detract from the oddness of Birth.