Birth – Jonathan Glazer and the concept of eternal love. (Film Review)

Jonathan Glazer is best known for his music film clips, including work with artists like Nick Cave, Radiohead, Massive Attack and The Dead Weather to name a few. His third film, Under the Skin has been making the festival rounds this year and its one on my “must see” list for when I get the opportunity here in Australia. Sexy Beast is one of the best gangster films you’ll see, and a fantastic film debut for Glazer for whom everyone immediately had high hopes. However, crouched in this middle of all this mind blowing success, is a film that is so odd, so strange in its choice of subject matter, that it has been panned by critics and fallen into the forgotten realm of films best rarely talked about. That film is Glazer’s second and his first go at co-writing.  That film is Birth.

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To claim that Birth is an odd film is an understatement. Critical reception falls primarily into two camps; the “this is appalling” camp and the “this could have been brilliant and falls slightly short” camp, and as a film fan, I fall into the latter category. The “appalling” camp primarily can’t get over the films placing a woman in her thirties (Kidman) into a bath with a ten year old child (Bright), and this scene, along with another where Kidman kisses Bright (whom she belies to be her dead husband reincarnated) take the film over and run away with it into an ugly place that tends to override the other more subtle aspects of the film. For me, there are moments of great cleverness in Birth, and Glazer can certainly direct his cast very well.  Birth’s problem may be in its writing, because the script was worked on for many months between Glazer and Jean-Claude Carrière (who worked in Bunuel in the past) and was then changed by Glazer and Milo Addica, into the woman’s point of view, just weeks before shooting was to begin.  As the film progressed scene’s were re-written and often changed in response to the film making process. Although Nicole Kidman is excellent in the role as a woman possessed with the madness of grief, all those re-writes and carry on may have been that which crippled what could have been a great project.

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For those of you who haven’t seen the 2004 film, Nicole Kidman plays a woman (Anna) who lost her husband ten years earlier.  She is still in mourning, but has made the decision to get on with her life. She is engaged to Joseph (Danny Huston), a man who loves her and is truly devoted, if his persistence can be seen to hover on possessiveness. In the course of their wedding preparations, a young man appears in their house and claims that his name is Sean, that he is Anna’s dead husband come back to life, and that she is not to marry Joseph. Anna, still vulnerable in her loss, gradually crumbles toward the child, in a way longing for him to be her dead husband.  As the story plays itself out, we find two people with very different problems have collided by a string of coincidences that threatens to destroy both their lives. But in the end, it is only Anna who will suffer for the depth of her love.

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One of the strongest aspects of the film are Glazer’s long loving shots of Kidman, playing to the strengths of actress and director. There are several shots that hover in an uncomfortably close examination of Kidman’s face as we watch her grief slowly take over her rationality. One particular shot, filmed as she sits in a crowd listening to part of the tumultuous score by Alexandre Desplat, is all pure auteur, reminding me of so many films of the 1960’s when subtlety could exist because the actress and director had intuitive connection. The image of Kidman is stripped bare, pared back.  Her long, luscious hair is gone in favor of a close cropped boyish do, a-sexual and withdrawn.  Her clothes are muted greys and beige and her skin is matte.  She is the ghost she seeks in the child; her grief makes her appear every waking moment as though she died ten years ago with her husband. There was a lot of praise for her acting at the time, and were it not for the “nudie-bath” stuff, and Lauren Bacall (who is also extremely good in the film) calling her a novice, it may not have been overshadowed.

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Glazer uses his camera favorably over the entire cast, fleshing out a depth in everyone that is difficult to access through the sparse language. Glazer wants to evoke feeling via image from the astonishing introductory scene of a jogging Sean-the-living-husband running in the snow toward his death, to the despairing Anna walking into an ocean in her wedding dress at the end. Everyone in this film looks beautiful and sad and somehow desperate, and all of this comes through Glazer’s vision and DOP Harris Savides camera. In Sexy Beast Glazer  perfectly captured personality through image and setting, he clearly has a knack for it, because it’s one of they key connections to the complex layers in Birth. It is this film style that prevents Birth from being the silly film it became accused of, despite the harsh criticism. Its the writing, the narrative, the odd plot holes that halt Birth’s vision being properly realized, and as I said above, this truly is a shame. Because so long was spent building the story about a young boy, then changed at the last minute to be the story about a grieving widow, then changed again in response to Kidman’s strength in the role, we lose our grasp on the film and it loses its subtle reach for its audience. Its a great shame, because much of what Glazer can do with a camera disappears behind these problems.

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For my money, Glazer remains a director to watch, even if Birth has lots of problems. I’m still looking forward to Under the Skin, and hope there are many films fro him after that.

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