ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

BIRTH
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Kidman out-Kubricks herself with an even shorter leading man

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Youngster Cameron Bright, the same kid so good at creepy inexpressiveness in Godsend (2004) stars in this icy film as the (possible) reincarnation of a fallen jogger named Sean. His wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), a coltish hottie from the 5th Avenue upper crust of Manhattan, still mourns for him after a decade. So now this ten-year old kid shows up at her engagement party and announces: "I'm Sean, your husband." He won't leave her alone after that, and gradually she starts to believe him, and it's exciting. Director Jonathan Glazer never lets the audience know for sure, but damn that's the fun anyway, and to play at being Stanley Kubrick's own reincarnation while you do it, that's just part of the kick. For example, the Jogger dies in a long slow tracking shot through Central Park as evening falls, and it feels like the same steadicam angel of death that shadowed Danny Torrance's big wheel in The Shining (1980). Meanwhile, Kidman plays a wealthy socialite living in the same elevator/doorman posh Central Park side luxury like she enjoyed in Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Sean, her inexpressive 10-year old boy romantic semi-stalker recalls Haley Joel Osment as the mother-love starved android of Spielberg's own Kubrick tribute, AI (2001).


Anna's cast of family members, wealthy mom (Lauren Bacall), brother-in-law (Arliss Howard), and pregnant sister (Alison Elliot) all seem so focused on protecting their wealth that they have almost nothing to talk about, except how fine it will be to marry Anna off to her self-absorbed fiancé' (Danny Huston) and getting the beach house ready. On the evening the film opens, everyone is coming up the elevator to their sterile roost for an engagement party, and it feels like the fifth circle of hell--all suits, baldness, forced merriment and canapés. Kidman's character seems like a deer permanently caught in the slo mo headlights of a stifling world of privilege. It's a trap of large shiny slates of imported marble, a prison of sterile lobbies, elevators, doormen and waiting cabs. Her hubby-to-be is a loathesomely normal guy, proud of winning her through perseverance and quantity of jewelry (never asking himself if she just may not actually like him). It's clear thanks to Kidman's expressive eyes that Anna has a soul trapped somewhere in her own marbled façade, but the rest of her is obviously merely hoping it doesn't show.  



He
hair cut Rosemary's Baby short, her legs spindly thin, it's as if she's Rosemary the Sequel, with that film's Satanic promises of wealth fulfilled, and she still trapped in the mundane patriarchal conspiracy of conception and birth. Sean represents more than a reincarnated little bastard-- he's her inner child reduced to a zombie. He's the ghost of her true nature, and she hardly recognizes him at first, but when she finally does it makes her giddy.


There is a marvelous, very long close up of Anna's face while at a classical music concert as she muses over the idea that this kid may in fact be her reincarnated husband. There should be whole movies of shots like these. Seen in the theater, this giant face of Kidman is like some visitation from a space mommy, beaming down on us, reverting us back to smaller than infant form. Here we have time to study the face of one of the leading actresses of our day, and we can literally see the molecular changes of her face--the skin cells flying off and being replaced with newer, happier, cells, as the rest of the elite surround her at the concert, zonked out like Kubrickian soldiers on their way to the wealthier circles of Vietnam.

            
The "cop-out or is it?" ending to Birth can't dampen the uniquely parched strangeness at play here, anymore than the "twist" of The Sixth Sense can dry the morose, rain-soaked oddness of it's narrative arc. Toward the end a hitherto unsmiling Sean finally forges a wan smile as he sits before the flashbulb of a busy class photographer at his school. He seems happy for the first time to be just a kid in a huge line of kids getting their pictures taken. It is at this moment and a subsequent one of Anna freaking out on the beach that the Kubrickian sinthom of birthday celebrations really graduates to metaphor status. Our collective grief for dead lovers and past incarnations of ourselves is just a sign of insanity. A parent's love for a child is just a frenzied attempt to cheat death by unraveling the fabric of their own lives. If one can reverse time unitl they have ceased to exist, death is not even an option.


Is this all the fault of Mary Kate Le Tourneau? When Kidman plans to escape with Sean and just drive somewhere else, it reads wrong even to the swooning, half-asleep audience; a mid-life crisis of such outré proportions looks obscene. Even the kid can't quite grasp the possibility of such a thing coming true with any sort of realism or grace; Canada is not an option. The touch of a lover your own age whose very presence makes you suffocate, the comfort of belonging to a faceless, fascist mass… maybe a pill to help it all fit together… that's the best you can hope for… everything else is just a frozen north fantasia… even death only brings another wet, screaming birth.
  (EK - 2004)

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Reported by Erich Kuersten - 11-11-04

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