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