Forgotten Films Archive, #1: Jonathan Glazer’s BIRTH (2004)

Once in a while a film full of stars, loaded with promise and equipped with a wide release plan, will come and go without making so much s a ripple in the zeitgeist, lost in the infinite growing back catalogue of cinema. Sometimes, these flippant dismissals are warranted; other times, they’re confounding. Occasionally, but rarely, there is a specific reason that upended a film’s fate. Many movies simply fall victim to time, shoved out of the limelight as more powerful and celebrated works eat up the ever-shrinking bandwidth of our cinematic history. 

Sure, there are films that never see the light of day; there are B-movies and schlock and midnight movies that most audiences never know exist; that’s not for this space. To be forgotten, the film must have been known, at least to a certain degree. It had expectations that were never met. Big stars, competent marketing, a promising young director, a legendary auteur… these were the films given their moment in the multiplexes, and for whatever reason seemed to disappear from the collective consciousness. 

And, most important of all, these are great films we should no longer overlook. 

Jonathan Glazer’s 2000 feature debut, Sexy Beast, was a small stick of dynamite in the still fertile indie film landscape that had exploded in the nineties, and had started to carry over into the new millennium. Glazer was, like so many new directors of this era, a former music video director making the leap to film. David Fincher did it, Michael Bay did it, Antoine Fuqua, Spike Jonze… Jonathan Glazer did it in his own unique way. Sexy Beast is a gonzo ride, and the London-born filmmaker blends his proper English pop sensibilities with a strong sense of place, maintaining an unflinching, open gaze on his characters, squirming under pressure. Sir Ben Kingsley earned a much-deserved Oscar nomination as the feral maniac criminal Don Logan, who upends the serene countryside retirement of his former colleague, Gal (Ray Winstone).

Glazer’s follow up, Birth, arrived on the scene in 2004, with what turned out to be an insurmountable plot point to contextualize, a “fatal hangup” if you will. It opened in twelfth place that October with $1.7 million; it ended its run with an anaemic $5 million domestic haul and $14 million total, against a $20 million budget. Then it was shoved off and forgotten as a weird, niche misfire. Just another sophomore slump, chalk it up to audience distaste. The plot, and the eventual direction of said plot, were a turn off for too many, plain and simple.

As for that plot: a ten-year old boy (Cameron Bright) shows up at the posh Central Park apartment of a widow, Anna, played by Nicole Kidman. It’s been, oddly enough, ten years since her husband, Sean, died suddenly while jogging one snowy afternoon – the tragedy is shown in the incredible opening credits sequence, a Prologue, set to Alexandre Desplat’s melodic, prickly score that sets the table for the cold mood to come. This is another version of the icy, threateningly elitist world of Rosemary’s Baby, and Kidman’s pixie crop only intensifies those shared vibes.

The boy tells Anna he is, in fact, Sean, her dead husband reincarnated. Anna – newly engaged to Joseph, another upper crust socialite played by Danny Huston – is understandably reluctant at first. She dismisses the boy, shrugs it all off, deflects questions from her controlling mother, played by Lauren Bacall, who was still absolutely on top of her game in 2004. Soon, however, curiosity gets the better of Anna. A relationship forms, and disaster begins to simmer.

Birth soon veers into situations that were met with a certain level of disgust upon release. There is a bathtub scene involving Anna and young Sean, a controversial moment that drew much of the ire of critics at the time. The thought of any relationship developing between Kidman’s character and a young boy drove audiences to look elsewhere. The trailer seemed willing to push the idea that Kidman is somehow falling in love with the boy. Words like “ick factor” and “exploitative” sprang up in reviews and drove the film’s chances into the ground before it had a chance to stand on its own merit.*

This is, and never was, the intention of Glazer’s film. From here on there will be spoilers, because this is my interpretation of what really happens. Sean is Anna’s husband reincarnated, but the reincarnated version of Sean is now only ten. This ten-year old Sean has only the purest memories of his truest love: Anna. He is just now pulling in these memories, as he reaches adolescence, which is why his memories are spotty and require visual aid. When adult Sean was still alive, however, he was having an affair with his sister-in-law, Clara, played by Anne Heche. The fact that Sean, once he felt this compulsion to revisit his old life, went to Anna instead of Clara, is proof enough to Clara that this isn’t real, that he’s not really Sean. It’s also enough to, eventually, change young Sean’s mind, and allow Anna to return to her life free of his insistences that they be together some day.

Sean visiting Anna instead of Clara is proof of only one thing: Sean loved Anna, and his feelings for Clara were fleeting, stupid feelings. They didn’t carry over, they don’t carve out a permanent pathway through someone’s soul the way true, real love can do. Those feelings aren’t pure enough for a boy of ten. That’s the message of Birth, the primal, deep-seeded nature of love, and when you’re able to surrender yourself to the film, to invest in these proper, manicured lives, and consider the way these elitists would handle such a bizarre occurrence, Glazer’s story will sink its teeth into you. My theory of the end result is ignoring so many wonderful touches – and wonderful performances – that occur between the prologue and the last shots of Anna, distraught in her wedding dress, crying in Joseph’s arms on the beach.

Heche is wonderful as the cold Clara; Bacall is sturdy and and young Cameron Bright, who remains stoic and detached, never emotionally invested the way the adults tend to be, is a captivating spectral presence. Bright’s performance gives this new Sean an alien quality, which serves as another buffer between reality and what unfolds. But it’s Danny Huston’s volatile turn as Joseph that brings the film to life in the second half. Huston had a brilliant run of work in the mid-2000s, from this to The Proposition, to Children of Men; here, he plays things cool, until he doesn’t play it cool anymore at just the right time with an absolutely electric meltdown. Huston nails the balancing act in a role that could have easily devolved into some ill-fitting, mustache-twirling villainy.

Birth is a complex story with layers to consider, not an exploitative thriller coasting by on one shocking moment. The bathtub scene is a chilly, eerily erotic moment, but it never exploits Cameron Bright, or his performance, and it’s framed and executed with enough taste and respect for the power of implication. Also – and this is key – it’s young Sean who arrives and gets into the tub with Anna. Had that been reversed, intention would be skewed, and that uncomfortable revulsion would be understandable. As it is, however, the scene is perfectly unsettling, a glimpse at how desire can overtake logical thought.

Kidman handles the scene with the same reserve she handles every moment in this brilliant performance, which requires her to shift from cold to curious in as few moves as possible. She doesn’t dare show emotion in this world, but eventually things become unshakable. There is a single-take zoom on Anna’s face at the symphony that lasts two minutes, and as she considers the things she’s recently discovered about young Sean, the camera pushes in, and Kidman gives us every emotion we need – and then some – with some remarkable face acting.

It took nine years for Glazer to release his next film, Under the Skin, which is widely considered a quiet masterpiece. Scarlett Johansson’s succubus alien is disturbing and cold, and the aesthetic DNA from Glazer’s previous films is present. It’s a more digestible film than Birth – the idea of an alien woman luring scummy men into a nebulous liquid trap is more appealing than Nicole Kidman sharing a bath with a ten-year old. But that dismissive summation ignores the depth and the taste of Birth, an underrated, simmering thriller, a masterpiece in its own weird, tricky way.

* Even old reviews  of Birth seem to have been scrubbed from the A.V. Club and Entertainment Weekly, as neither of those quotes from metacritic were linked to the original review.

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