Rob Harmon’s Picks 5/20/14

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksJoin us as we search this week for… Buried Treasure at Best Video!

Birth (dir. Jonathan Glazer, 2004)

“I don’t like it when people come up to me after my plays and say, ‘I really dug your message, man.’ Or, ‘I really dug your play, man, I cried.’ You know. I like it when people come up to me the next day, or a week later, and they say, ‘I saw your play. What happened?'”
– Jeff (Bill Murray), Tootsie (1982)

With the release earlier this year of Jonathan Glazer’s—one of contemporary cinema’s most prodigiously gifted stylists—latest film UNDER THE SKIN (due out on DVD in a couple of months) and a long-overdue emergence from self-imposed exile it seems as good a time as any to re-examine his last, which is already now 10 years old: the gorgeous and unclassifiable whatsit—as well as an unfairly neglected treasure—BIRTH, about a woman who comes to believe that her deceased husband has been reincarnated in the body of a young boy.

The opening sequence of Birth is a marvel of diaphanous invention: a man’s voice is heard off-camera describing to an audience his non-belief in the idea of reincarnation, which fades into a series of shots of the same man running in New York’s snowy Central Park, where he eventually stumbles to the ground and dies peacefully. These shots are accompanied by Alexandre Desplat’s distinctively ringing score—all high, piping flutes, low, puffing brass, and pounding kettledrums—while a final, silent shot depicts a baby being born.

The man, named Sean, is seen only from behind and, but for one shadowy close-up, we never see his face. Instead, the viewpoint of the camera soars above him—bird-like, serene and ethereal—as though guardian angels were hovering over the proceedings, pulling invisible strings. This tour de force of an opening—five shots, running a total of three-and-a-half minutes—ably sets the table for what is to come.

Ten years on we see Sean’s widow Anna (Nicole Kidman) at his graveside. She, it turns out, has just accepted the proposal of her long-time boyfriend Joseph (Danny Huston). At a swank engagement party for the couple soon afterward Clifford and Clara (Peter Stormare and Anne Heche), Sean’s brother and sister-in-law, show up to pay their respects, but Clara ducks out suddenly when she has second-thoughts about her present, and she is watched from a distance by a mysterious young boy, also named Sean (Cameron Bright). Later, at Anna’s family’s Fifth Avenue residence, the clan has gathered together to celebrate the birthday of the matriarch, Eleanor (Lauren Bacall), when young Sean slips in the door with some party guests. He resolutely informs Anna that he is the reincarnation of her dead husband and orders her not to marry Joseph.

Anna, Joseph, and the rest of the family greet this baffling news with emotions ranging from stifled amusement to outright anger, and they soon appeal to Sean’s working class mother (Cara Seymour) to reason with him and bring this behavior to a stop. Still, as Anna’s sister prepares to have a baby of her own and the engagement begins to run off the tracks young Sean persists: He seems to know just too much about Anna’s husband to be a mere coincidence, but….

Birth is a fascinating picture, though flawed, and it invited both criticism and controversy at the time of its release due to its overly serious, funereal atmosphere and its courting of the taboo subjects of reincarnation and children’s sexuality. The film is co-written (along with Glazer and Milo Addica) by legendary French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, who, though he has worked with the likes of Godard, Forman, Wajda, Schlöndorff, and about a million other directors, is certainly best known for his collaboration with Luis Buñuel throughout the 1960’s and 70’s on pictures like BELLE DE JOUR and THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE.

In fact, though Birth bears the influence of Hitchcock, Polanski (especially ROSEMARY’S BABY), and Buñuel, its closest cousin in celluloid must be Japanese director Nagisa Oshima’s outrageously surreal comedy MAX MON AMOUR (which is, unsurprisingly, co-written by Carrière), wherein Charlotte Rampling abandons her über-stable and conservative life with perfect hubby and son when she decides to take a new lover… a chimpanzee named Max! Birth may lack Oshima’s gravitas in playing the film completely, 100% straight and pushing the audience to the edge of the cliff—and sometimes over it—but, on the reverse side, it never descends into being a mere joke. This very seriousness in Birth has also preserved the film in an extraordinary way, like an insect stuck in amber: so opaque is the storyline about a woman in love with a 10-year old boy (Is it meant to be funny? Serious? Satirical? Sad?) that it gives the film a sort of crystalline quality, gaunt and saturnine, yet still breathing and alive. Far from being confusing or slight, in fact, Birth is an open book… approachable from many different directions.

The film is also well-acted. Kidman is riveting, peeling away layers of genteel social respectability to ultimately reveal a willowy and vulnerable core. Bacall, in her role as society dowager, lends the film a dash of majesty with her poise, high cheek bones, and impeccable Hollywood pedigree. Bright’s round, moon face and steady gaze is an opaque mask that gives the film its greyish, inscrutable quality: a poker face which almost never cracks. Huston is a picture of high-society conservatism, but his tailored suits and power ties disguise hidden stores of anger and rage as—with the film progressing—his character’s masculine identity and social position are increasingly compromised by events out of his control. His nuanced portrayal, as he senses that he is losing Anna to the spirit of her deceased ex-husband, is at times both hero and villain in a very challenging role.

Glazer, like other modern-day auteurs (Fincher, Michel Gondry, and Spike Jonze, to be exact) cut his teeth on the music video circuit, working with acts such as Radiohead, Massive Attack, and Jamiroquai, before making his breakthrough debut feature, SEXY BEAST (2000). Indeed, Glazer, who has made his name primarily as a visual stylist, here acquits himself beautifully in a richly textured mood piece. Glazer, who is British, deserves massive credit for giving foreground consideration to elements of social class, which are all too commonly ignored in American culture. Indications of money and position are everywhere and it is no accident that the three households depicted in the film represent distinctly different economic backgrounds.

Ten years on, Birth retains a strange and eerie beauty: by saying just enough—and no more—Glazer encloses his elegant metaphysical mystery with a lingering veil of questions and doubts.