Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Dec 23, 2004 5:10 pm 
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Rebirth . . . maybe

Glazer's Birth is a strange follow-up for his first film, Sexy Beast, whose British-style gangster nasties featuring the likes of Ray Winstone, James Fox, and Ben Kingsley, seemed to some quite choice. The new effort is nothing like that. Birth raises the issue of reincarnation in an odd form: a man dies and a boy (perhaps) is immediately born who is that man, and who ten years later perceives the man's memories as déjà vu.. This boy (Cameron Bright) turns up at a party and approaches his widow, Anna (Nicole Kidman) with his strange claims. Anna initially dismisses them, but then, prompted no doubt by her inability to stop obsessing about her late husband, begins to take them seriously. And then -- don't read this if you want to be surprised by what happens -- the whole idea gets dropped when her husband's ex-girlfriend turns up and tells the ten-year-old boy that he's all wet. He thinks he's in love with Kidman, but the girlfriend has proof that the late husband was far more loyal to his mistress. Since the boy becomes convinced his feelings aren't the man's after all, he drops his claim.

The boy has been persistently telling Anna that he's Sean and he loves her. His name, like the dead man's, is Sean. Why should a reincarnated soul come in a person with the same name? A cynical answer is plot convenience dictates it. When the boy tells Kidman "I am Sean" and "I love you" in meaningful tones, she will know what it means and so will we.

Now the proof offered by the girlfriend -- again, don't read this if you want to be surprised -- was a packet of love letters from Anna to Sean that he gave the girlfriend, unopened, to show he loved her more than his wife. It seemed at first that these might have been where the boy Sean got his information, and that he was a poseur, a fake. But he hasn't seen these letters. Nobody but Anna would know what's in them. Hence the mystery of Sean's knowledge about Anna and her late husband remains unsolved. So maybe after all Sean is Sean.

But when Sean 'confesses' he's not Sean, Anna goes back to her new fiancé, Joseph, and marries him. Only a scene on the beach on the wedding day shows she's still not his. She is unhappy. The only "reality" the movie leaves us with is that Anna is still hung up on Sean. The reincarnation issue has been raised only to be dropped.

Birth unreels with generic tastefulness in the posh, airless apartment world of wealthy Manhattanites that Nicole Kidman also inhabited in Kubrick's Eye's Wide Shut, except this version is darker and more limited, simplified down to a few adults and a ten-year-old boy. Kidman has a Rosemary's Baby coiffure, but the boy isn't a spooky devil child. He's a Catholic choirboy type with a crew cut and a pretty face. He hasn't much personality. Nobody in the movie does. But he has solemn determination and great poise. He seems happy till his illusion (if that's what it is) is shattered.

Birth itself has a good deal of poise, though some will find its airlessness deadly, especially given the lack of follow-through. It succeeds insofar as it remains a solemn mystery. Glazer has made the movie with great restraint, and that preserves the mystery for a good while. The music's never portentous. Nobody overacts. The pace isn't pushed and there are no flashy trick effects. The physical impossibilities of an adult woman being with a pre-pubescent boy are faced when the ten-year-old Sean undresses and gets into the bathtub with Anna. This is the most talked about scene and Glazer carries it off tastefully. At the height of Anna's acceptance of Sean's claim, she finds a "solution": she and Sean will run away somewhere, and in eleven years, when he's twenty-one, they'll marry. What would Humbert Humbert say? Anyway, the girlfriend comes along to smash the dream.

This doesn't succeed for anyone. Believers in reincarnation are disappointed that the filmmakers have chickened out, and materialists aren't satisfied either, because we still don't know how Sean got all those ideas and that information. The deflation isn't crude. Glazer maintains perfect decorum throughout. But it still seems like the movie we start out with has been grafted onto another one. The two parts don't fit. And the second part is a feeble effort to escape from the complexities introduced in the first. Nonetheless Glazer and staff have maintained their somber style with some grace.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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