The beginning of Jonathan Glazer’s Birth is odd. There is a voice-over from a man, probably a scientific lecturer, who says he doesn’t believe in reincarnation. Then he goes for a run through Central Park during dusk. It’s winter. He stops, falls down, and dies. Then there’s a baby being born.
Ten years later, his widow Anna (Nicole Kidman) has an engagement party, because she finally said yes to Joseph (Danny Houston). They live next to Central Park, in a very expensive apartment. There is Anna’s mother, played by Lauren Bacall, and Anna’s pregnant sister Laura and her husband Bob (Alison Elliot and Arliss Howard). There are family friends, among them Clara and Clifford (Anne Heche and Peter Stormare).
And then there is that boy, played by Cameron Bright. He’s not cute, but there is an earnestness about him. He first follows Clara into the park and then turns up at the party, claiming that he is Anna’s dead husband Sean, and that he doesn’t want her to marry Joseph.
The party treats him as a joke, and Anna wants to send him away, but finds that she cannot bring herself to do that. The boy is adamant, unflinching, and although Anna tells him not to lie, she cannot forget his words, and the way he looks at her. Then he faints, and she sees it. There is a scene at the opera where the camera looks at Kidman’s face for several minutes, without interruption. I’m not sure about what happens to Anna, but some kind of realization seems to take place.
It doesn’t matter that part of Anna is convinced that Sean’s story is bogus. It only matters that what that boy tells her fills her longing to see Sean again. That the person making that impossible dream come true is a ten-year old is a small obstacle towards happiness that seemed out of reach for good.
The thing is that the boy is really called Sean. His parents tell him to stop hassling that nice lady. He tells his mother that he is no longer her stupid son. There is no telling what the heck is going on here. The movie treats the boy as a boy, and takes him seriously. The adults don’t panic, but try to cope with an impossible situation as best they can. Anna’s brother-in-law Bob questions the boy. Sean gives surprisingly intimate answers, and he knows stuff only Anna’s husband would know. He isn’t scary or spooky or a threat – he just insists that Anna is his wife. There are no guns, no blood, and no madness tucked away in a corner of someone’s mind.
The movie consists of muted colors, lots of black and brown and grey. It tries very hard to feel black and white. The apartment and Nicole Kidman’s hairstyle bring to mind Rosemary’s Baby. Birth is a horror film, too, but it is scary because it treats its theme seriously. In movies, when we ask ourselves what the hell is going on, the explanation at the end is almost always a disappointment. The better the build-up, the bigger the jerk we get when the third act plants us firmly back on the solid ground of reality. The explanation is either too much, or not enough. Not here. There is a reason for all this, and it contains some sort of emotional logic.
Apparently, Jonathan Glazer is unable to make a boring film. He did Sexy Beast in 2000, then this one in 2004, and Under the Skin last year. He is the director of many TV ads and music videos. Everything he does is different from anything else. Watch his Levi’s ad featuring Nicholas Duvauchelle, using that famous Sarabande by Händel.
Anna desperately looks for ways to convince herself that this is not her dead husband. People tell her so, but to no avail. She is afraid that she might fall in love again. She cannot win: if the boy is her dead husband, she is still attached to him. If he isn’t, then how crushing can it be to lose your husband twice?